On the origin of turtles

29 March, 2008 at 10:52 pm (rpg theory) ()

Not of the ninja variety. Note that this is an origin, not the origin.

The nature of turtling

When playing, most people want their character to do well, not be eaten by the grue, not be tortured by random demon lords, not lose all of their loved ones, not remain a dirt-poor loser and so on. The effect happens due to character identification or even immersion.

Turtling is the same thing, but taken to an unhealthy extreme. Namely, avoiding all sorts of risks to have the character be safe, where the category “risks” includes plot hooks and other story-making opportunities, as well as anything resembling a mystery.

Passing judgement

What follows is a description of a bad system. It can be worked around, but on system-level, the desired outputs fight each other, which is a bad thing. Playing in roleplaying is usually made enjoyable by at least two things: Interesting game, which usually requires that there are conflicts in the game, and identification with a character. The inherent conflict between these two is obvious. There are several ways to handle it.

One way is for players to always avoid all trouble, creating characters optimised to survive whatever happens to them and even triumph over such challenges. The character is practically untouchable. Not rarely have random green-skinned or undead creatures killed everyone the character ever loved and now the character’s life is only fueled by the desire to revenge them (and get rich in the process). The GM’s role is to challenge the character and engage it in something resembling a story. I call this a bad system. This is because the player wants to create a character who is actively hard to engage (in the long run), which makes the GM’s job harder, which is likely to reduce the quality of whatever story does manage to manifest, which usually reduces the player’s enjoyment.

Second way is that the player creates a character that is vulnerable in some way that helps the GM in engaging the character. The point is that any decent GM can see this flag and target the character there. This makes for less contrived stories as the need to use artificial plot hooks is reduced. Orcs killed your family, save for those of your age, whom they kidnapped, and you are out to discover and rescue them. This gives a plenty of material to the GM: Rescue missions, your sister who internalised to orcish culture, grabbed control of a tribe, and is now attacking the human lands, general orc slaughtering. All good fun. The downside, for the player, is that the GM might misuse the vulnerabilities of the character. Arbitrary killing those the character is about to save might provoke some interesting roleplay from certain players, but it is more likely to simply annoy. This I like very much.

Third way is to give the player a reward of some sort for hurting the character (often in specific way). Fate points (by whatever name) are the most common method, though others exist. This means that the player can both create interesting story material and play to the best outcome for the character, or at least not play to the worst. This often works.

The outlier methods are removing character identification or character ownership. Another is ignoring the story dimension entirely.

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Design and bricolage

29 March, 2008 at 8:53 am (definition, game design) (, , )

Bricolage is a term used here and there. Over the Forge, it was some time ago suggested to be the key concept of simulationist play. It was also suggested to be the key concept of all play. I think I agree with the former stance, as I think bricolage is an important part of human thinking.


Bricolage essentially means building something new (or repairing something) with recycled materials. A table is not very stable, so some innocent bundle of newspaper is jammed under one leg. That’s bricolage. Or creating a house system that is an unholy union of Runequest and Spirit of the Century. So: Using stuff with history so that the history remains relevant, though is changed. Term learned from Chris Lehrich’s essay, which is fairly heavy reading (by my standards).

On the elegance of engineering

Suppose I want a roleplaying game that does certain things; for example, is a communal story-creation engine and has a fast and exciting combat system. Maybe something Bourne-like. What can I do? The first option is to build it from scratch; player characters should be fugitive agents, so something that measures if they are about to be caught or get in trouble should be there. They should have some very personal goals to achieve. The natural time limit sets pressure on the goals. (Somebody make this game.) The point is that this is not easy and the end result is likely to not be familiar to the intended audience (the local gaming group, say). This approach can be called engineering. (This is of course also bricolage, but to a lesser degree, or at least of a different kind.)

The second option is to take an existing system that is close to what is wanted and to houserule it (or build a highly derivative system; same thing). The rumours tell that Savage Worlds has pretty fast combat system, so it could probably be hacked into something suitable with minor changes such as tactical renaming of character abilities and tweaking the costs of those, maybe building some new ones or banning unsuitable material. A lot easier and faster; plus, assuming the group is already familiar with Savage Worlds and enjoys it, picking up the new version is easy and likely to end up being fun. This is bricolage, as the end result is heavily defined by the original design of Savage Worlds, which is the relevant history here.

Elegance. Right. I’ll claim that usually an engineered game is more elegant than one constructed via heavy bricolage. A game engineered for specifically this purpose will not have too many irrelevant bits (assuming a good design; adding irrelevant bits is not good design; this is my bias speaking, but I think this is also fairly uncontroversial). The purpose may be very broad; a D&D-like experience with less book-keeping and prep time, for instance, is a totally valid design goal. Heavy bricolage, OTOH, always carries on the assumptions of the original game or games due to retaining their fundamental structure. Often some parts of this fundamental structure are irrelevant to the current game at hand, and hence a source of inelegancy.

So, every game should be engineered to provide a more elegant design

Personally, I don’t think so. Building upon an existing game means a strong foundation and a formidable tradition with answers to several questions that might come up. Watching bricolage in action is something I find fascinating. The end result may be infuriating, though. Witness the parts of your culture you hate the most. Also, those you love the most.

I am prone to always saying that people should design whatever they are doing from the ground up and not mod their favourite game. This is my mistake, as it usually is not true. What people should do is to broaden their toolbox; play and read several different roleplaying games and some other games as a seasoning. The larger set of tools (and places to steal from) allow for better or at least more interesting works. Originality is stealing from sufficiently different sources at the same time.

An important point is that the items one uses for bricolage (games, in this case) will significantly shape the outcome. It follows that using different games as a starting point for design leads to different ways of achieving roughly the same effect. They end results will often feel significantly different, as in the difference between D&D 3rd and Donjon. This is a good thing.

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