Sunday, October 24, 2010

Games are Idioms

(Originally posted on EN World, but re-posted here since people on that site seemed to like it.)

I think you can learn a lot about a game by listening to how people describe it after they play it. It shows you how they interact with, see, and process the game.

For instance, last weekend I played Carcassonne. I had some lucky draws I was able to exploit by managing my meeples well. I was able to keep churning through cities and roads, completing stuff at a steady enough pace that I was able to drop some farmers early without hurting myself in the late game. My opponent built a couple of huge cities to narrow my lead, but my edge in farmers sealed the game.

Compare that to a description of our lunchtime Keep on the Borderlands game from Tuesday. The characters had been ambushed by wererats at the Stumbling Giant (the tavern in the keep) the session before. With the help of the guards, they figured out that the wererats posed as halfling merchants and had visited the keep several times before. Oddly enough, though the guards at the gate reported that the halflings always left with a heavily laden wagon, the gnomes they traded with never sold them all that much copper and silver ore. The gnomes were surprised at the guards' description of the loaded wagon.

The PCs had arranged a meeting with the keep's ruler. Unknown to them, the ruler's trusted advisor disguised himself and sought out the PCs to question them. Faced with an inquisitive stranger, the party's wizard slashed the man's arm with a knife to see if the non-silver blade would deal any lasted damage.

It did, and the session ended with the characters entered the ruler's audience chamber to find the "wandering tracker" they had harassed standing at his side.

If you look at my second description, I think it's something you find for most RPGs and other immersive games. I'd describe playing Mass Effect in a similar manner. There's something very important there, a mode of thinking and experiencing the game that the mechanics should support. It's definitely something that influences the Essentials process and a lot of my design.

It's something that I think of as the game's metaphor, or its idiom. To an outsider, D&D is a few people sitting around a table, rolling dice, consulting books, speaking in funny voices, and maybe pushing miniatures around a grid. To the people in the game, it's a tense expedition into an ancient ruin, made all the more deadly by the bloodthirsty, recently awakened vampire that stalks the tombs they explore. That's an important part of the game. Without it, the game is little more than what it appears to be on the surface.

3 comments:

bankuei said...

The two things I think a lot about for that, are the meaning and the medium.

The meaning is the context of why some things are more important than others for a game; why capturing a queen is a bigger deal than a pawn in Chess. Without the meaning, "Rolling a 20" has no context.

The medium, literally, is where the game is "happening". In all games but rpgs, there's a physical component to look at to gauge the state of the game. While RPGs have a lot of those (character sheets, minis, etc.), those aren't really where the game is happening - it's all in the imagination.

So, in order to engage with the medium, someone has to sit there and imagine with the group, otherwise, they'll miss what the game is about.

Or, as you're saying, the idiom is invisible to them.

zigojacko said...

well said bankuei :)

Not_A_Word said...

"How players describe play" is interesting and probably merits a dissertation or two -- D&D is closer to Mass Effect than Carcassonne, but I think of "memorable moments" from D&D and ME, and they often aren't the same sorts of moments.

What does that difference mean, in terms of design? Sorry, Mike, people apparently don't want to let you make D&D an even better game, but I look at the "tale telling" aspect of the Savage Worlds Hellfrost and Deadlands settings and see something I like -- when the party gets back to town, there is a retelling of the party's deeds, and these deeds and tall tales are so often exactly the things the players themselves remember and say about their own play experiences.

It would be great to have a way to do something with that, since it seems like a real "thing", a useful and meaningful byproduct of the play experience. Hmm. For some people, the tale they tell is of record damage one round; for others, it's the fight in which they almost died (or saved someone from death); for other still, it's the social/RP stuff like the one in your post. Seems challenging to have a fair and unified mechanism for productively feeding memories of play back into play. Maybe someday!