Levers and the fruitful void

24 January, 2010 at 3:32 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , )

Theory post. It’s been a while since the previous one.

Fruitful void is a concept for designing and analysing games. Let us take some roleplaying game and assume it has rules. Fruitful void is something the rules do not cover, but point towards.

With D&D 4e rules give you plenty of maneuvres in combat so that significant number of them are interesting, but the rules do not tell which one you should use. There are characters whose powers can work well together, but the rules do not tell how to use the powers so that the synergy benefits manifest. Dogs in the Vineyard is about judging people, about how much violence one is willing to use to do what is right and about faith. There is no faith attribute (that judgment is for the players to make), there is no rule telling that you must use violence and there are no guidelines about what judgments are appropriate. That’s up to the players. Old D&D gives lots of tools for dungeon delving – combat ability, spells, items, henchmen – yet there is no skill for making tactical and strategic decisions. Those are up to the players. Burning Wheel has involved rules for fighting (in melee, with ranged weapons, with words) and lots of other rules that make other parts of gameplay or story move fast. And when fighting the player must script actions – high numbers on character sheet are not sufficient. The tactics and what one fights for are up to the players.

So: Fruitful void is the space a game leaves for players to fill, and towards which the game points players. The concept applies well to focused games and less well to GURPS or (certain) games which get out of the way. The concept applies weakly to games that take a life of their own (which, I reckon, is related to getting out of the way). The comments on Anyway relating to the subject are worth reading.

Lever as a concept was introduced by d7 just a while ago. Lever is some mechanical tool a player can use to affect the fiction. Skills, powers, aspects, so on.

I think these two concepts are related in more than a single way.

D7 uses diplomacy skill in D&D 3rd as an example of a lever ill placed: It negates all negotiation by skipping it with a single skill roll. That is bad if you want to have a game where negotiations are central. Point: Levers can certainly kill a fruitful void by bypassing it entirely. Consider: Play modern D&D, but instead of using the combat rules simply add a fighting skill and resolve all combats by rolling it. Not much point in playing modern D&D that way, is there?

Levers can skip boring parts of gameplay. This is what many skills in BW do. This is one way of seeing diplomacy on D&D 3rd. Of course it is also possible to handwave those bits away, but often the rules are useful.

Using levers can be the fruitful void. This is 4e. There is much GM advice on building interesting combats, which simply means that there is no universal best tactics – add environment factors, terrain, varied enemies with special powers and so on to change which tactics are functional and to what degree.

The decision to pull or not pull a lever can be in the void. Tactical version: You have one sleep spell per day. Use it now or later? Dramatic version: You can summon demons, but they demand a high price. Whichever version: You know magic, but there’s a chance it goes horribly wrong whenever you use it.

I’m sure there’s more. An exercise for readers.



  1. d7 said,

    Interesting! So the fact that D&D 4e fights require interesting environments (and the GM work put into that) to play well is not so much a failure of the system but is part of the system’s fruitful void. The mechanics point toward the fun and creativity of GMing being (in part) in the planning and details of encounter environments.

    That clarifies my thoughts at the end of my own post. I couldn’t help feeling like the conclusion was that 4e was somehow subtly broken. Looked at this way, though, it’s just broken for my intended use of the system and hence not to my taste, while it will be perfect for those who are looking for just that kind of fruitful void.

    Insightful as always, Tommi. Thanks.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Thanks for the comments and the discussion, which is interesting to read. Thanks to Philo, too.

  2. Philo Pharynx said,

    No game is broken so long as sombeody somewhere is enjoying it. And just because a game provides a lever, doesn’t mean you need to use it. Our group usually roleplays out important social interactions and relies on the dice for less important ones.

  3. d7 said,

    If you often enough choose to not pull the levers D&D 4e gives you, what made your group choose it and stick with it? Is it just that the system you use doesn’t really matter, or are there outstanding features that outweigh the ignored mechanics?

    (Aside, I don’t think “no game is broken so long as someone enjoys it” is a useful heuristic. By that, FATAL and World of Synnabar aren’t broken. A heuristic that doesn’t divide the set of all games isn’t much use. Besides, it’s informative to look at a game and see why it doesn’t meet certain people’s play objectives.)

  4. Philo Pharynx said,

    Actually, I should have been clearer. We often roleplay out the social interaction in addition to the dice. The roleplay usually modifies the dice, but sometimes preempts it. A wrong approach is still a problem, and good ideas help out a lot.

    This allows a player who isn’t a wonderful speaker to roleplay somebody more charming. Essentially we take the ideas he roleplayed and imagine as if somebody with his characters abilities had said it. Just like the player doesn’t need martial training to be a warrior, we don’t require the player to be smooth to be a social character. A wrong approach is still a problem, and good ideas help out a lot. Likewise, if a player is smooth, the NPC’s probably won’t respond as well if he looks like something that crawled out of the sewer.

    Finally, some social encounters are important to our group and others are less so. Often when scouring the city for information means several in-game hours talking to different people. That’s something that could take all night and be focused on one player. We usually just pull the lever on this and roll it, with the GM getting to the meat of this by roleplaying out the most fruitful informant.

    One of the points from your original levers post was the presence of levers meant that few people would go beyond it. It sounded like you have a preference that using story elements be hardcoded into the game. My point is that I like a game that has a good baseline with levers. When I’m having an off night (especially on a friday game after a long day at work), I can sit back and have a fun game. When I want to be more creative I can really blow it out. It’s sort of like starting from a jar of spaghetti sauce and adding entra spices and sausage to it. It may not be the same as home-made sauce, but it doesn’t take twelve hours either.

    What I like the most about 4e is that the rules are very tight. There’s not nearly so many cases where you need to figure out what the authors meant to say. They’re the least ambiguous of any game I’ve had a lot of experience with. I also like the game balance in the game – everybody gets a chance to be the hero.

    On to the term “broken” – There are enough flame wars on the internet. Broken implies that there’s a fundamental flaw in a game, and it shouldn’t be applied when it’s just not your style. I don’t like a lot of the rules-light games because there’s a lot of interpretation required from the GM. I’ve played with some inconsistent GM’s in the past and it really annoys me. But I wouldn’t say those games are broken because of it. Your idea of examing games based on play objectives is much better.

    P.S. I don’t know FATAL, but I do own World of Synnabar. It’s got tons of ideas in there. It’s got no game balance, but there have been lots of posts recently supporting the idea that game balance should be the purview of the GM and not the rules system. In fact I’ve considered running a humorous one-shot with pre-gen characters just for laughs. I’ve done that with HōL, and we had a blast.

  5. d7 said,

    I like your jarred sauce analogy. It illustrates your point well and works in a variety of situations—for my tastes, I like a jarred sauce that probably has different stuff in it, so that when I have a flat evening, the game mechanics are still making it easy to sit back and still get some interesting character or story development out of it without needing to “blow it out” to get there. It underlines the fruitful void idea too: someone who wants to add their own protein is going to be ill-served by buying a jar with sausage already in it, while that jar may be just right for someone because they like that sausage and it also happens to not have green peppers, which they don’t like.

    For World of Synnabar, it’s mostly broken in the sense of trying to be a simulation game and failing; also too, is the issue of the rules being really hard to understand because the writing and organisation is atrocious. As you point out 4e’s strength of clarity (the opposite of brokenness), the brokenness of a game can be in its failure to communicate the rules. (FATAL has the failed-sim and writing flaws, plus it turns the fail to 11 by mechanically and fluff-wise encouraging sexual assault as normal play.)

    I’ve been struggling to reconcile my own visceral experience playing 4e, which really didn’t work in a number of ways, and the intellectual knowledge that that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game, so I’ve kept falling into the trap of implying it’s broken. Thanks for those two pros: unambiguous rules and balance of hero-spotlight. The way 4e accomplishes that balance is wrong for how I play so I tend to see it as a con; seeing it through someone else’s eyes as a pro point helps a lot.

    I prefer balance across a variety of metrics rather than just combat, since I don’t want combat to be the first solution to every problem. When everyone is equally good at combat, that emphasises the combat lever and makes it more likely to be pulled. It’s not so much that I think few people will go beyond the levers that are available, but that the obviousness of a lever (and it’s presence to begin with) makes it a more obvious—and hence more frequent—solution to problems. And, once someone has solved a problem, they will sometimes move on, leaving the lever-pulling as the only response to the problem.

    So it’s not that I think few people will go beyond levers, but that levers increase the frequency of the particular solution the lever represents, and increases the frequency that the lever will be the whole response to the problem. How much that increase ends up I’m not sure, but it’s good to think about when the levers a game point in the opposite direction of what you want out of the game.

  6. Callan said,

    Hi again,

    “It negates all negotiation by skipping it with a single skill roll.”
    Is the GM choosing to make it go to a skill roll at all also a lever or void? Taking it that the GM decides when a roll happens, if at all.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Hi Callan. It’s been a while.

      My unstated assumption is that the game rules are interpreted as physics of the game world, so if something happens with suitable mechanics, then the mechanics are engaged.

      Typically GM is responsible for making sure this happens.

      Making the decision about using or not using a single diplomacy roll to handle a social situation is not part of the fruitful void in any design I know. It can be interpreted as a lever, if one wishes so, but I think it extends the meaning of the term and possibly dilutes it.

      • Callan said,

        I’m taking it that your treating it this way – when the player moves to have a diplomacy skill roll, it’s a lever – I guess you might call it how he’s working the physics of the universe.

        But your saying when the GM goes to involve the diplomacy skill, it’s the physics of the game world/the GM is enacting the physics of the game world?

        • Tommi Brander said,

          Here’s what I am saying: When player or GM moves to have a diplomacy roll, that’s pulling a lever. (In D&D diplomacy does not work against player characters, so GM moving in such a way that it is used is rare IME.)

          Here is what I am also saying: Arbitrating if diplomacy should be rolled in some situation is a different concept. It operates on different level (one pretty unique to roleplaying, I think). I can elaborate on this, if necessary. As mentioned above, I don’t think making decisions on this level is in the fruitful void of any design I know.

          Here is what I am not saying: That investigating how one makes the decision (or who makes it or the social dynamics surrounding it) of whether to roll diplomacy is irrelevant. It is simply a different issue.

          • Callan said,

            I find them relatively equivalent – if someone making a diplomacy roll is a lever for skipping roleplaying diplomacy, then whether a diplomacy roll is allowed at all by the GM can also be a lever. Usually doing so as a blunt method of controlling players.

            I think your treating whether a diplomacy roll applies strictly in terms of channeling the imagined world and whether it would be available at that time.

            Which is fair enough – but I’m saying that instead of basing whether a diplomacy roll can happen on game world events, someone can bluntly just decide to base it on whether they want to stop players rolling their way through diplomacy. Which is pretty much giving up on or ignoring an SIS, which is pretty ugly. But it’s possible.

            • Tommi Brander said,

              Okay. It is a different perspective when compared to the one I am taking here, but maybe valuable.

            • d7 said,

              Eh. Then every choice is a lever and the metaphor becomes meaningless.

              I defined levers as things that a player can invoke on their character sheet in order to engage the mechanics and influence the world. Given that working definition, the GM deciding to skip the Diplomacy roll is saying, “No, I’m taking this lever away.”

              • Callan said,

                Well, if you tried diplomacy with a golum and the GM says a roll can’t be made, he’d be deciding to take the lever away as well.

                It’s not the taking away that matters, it’s the agenda the GM has in mind when doing so – the GM might take away the lever because he’s portraying that you can’t do diplomacy with a ten foot stone golum. Or he might have decided to ignore the game world and is taking it away to try and manipulate events at the game table itself. Or he might be doing so so as to facilitate some agenda like nar or gamism.

                I say this because if your going to identify something as a lever, I think it’s important to identify how there are levers others can pull to nullify it as a lever.

                • d7 said,

                  I still wouldn’t call that a lever.

                  The point of the metaphor is to think clearly about the points of contact with the mechanics that are part of the design of the mechanics. What levers do the mechanics offer? How are they made evident to the players? What does the lever require before or after pulling it? What other parts of the mechanics does the lever connect to? The machine metaphor is deliberate here.

                  By contrast, what you’re describing above is the GM altering the mechanics (disconnecting the lever), not using the mechanics to put the game engine in motion. To put that in perspective with the lever metaphor, what the GM is doing there is using a wrench (a tool outside the mechanics) to disengage the lever’s action arm, or taking a sledgehammer to the workings to completely disable the system.

                  (Not that there’s anything wrong with altering the mechanics that way for a given agenda if it’s to everyone’s taste.)

                  I think it’s much more profitable to make a distinction between actions that are taken inside the authority of the mechanics and actions that are taken at a level outside the mechanics in order to change or override them.

                  • Callan S. said,

                    No, it’s not altering the mechanics?

                    What stops you from making your character climb a cliff using the diplomacy skill?

                    In traditional gaming, the GM decides if the skill roll applies or not. That is the mechanics – the GM calls this.

                    It’s not him altering the mechanics to decide this, it’s just following the same mechanics as usual.

                    I mean, that’s how I’ve read it in most traditional RPGs “The GM decides” is usually refered to by the text as how to handle if a skill roll is involved at all. I mean, that’s why you usually don’t roll drive skill to just drive around at a normal speed – the GM decides it’s not a skill roll (usually).

                    To me, even if your trying to get a king to allow supplies to a famined village, the GM cutting me off from a diplomacy roll is standard mechanical use. Yeah, it sucks – that’s why I’m not all hard for traditional games because it enables this crap.

                    Or have you read that “The GM decides” to mean the GM just altering the mechanics? I could see it being possible to read that in the often vague wording.

                    • d7 said,

                      Do you agree that the GM has a different relationship to the mechanics than the players do?

                    • Callan S. said,

                      It is not a law of the universe (like gravity is such a law) that the GM has a different relationship to the mechanics than the players do.

                      So I’d say no, I don’t agree the GM is just granted (by some law of physics or something) a different relationship to the mechanics than the players do.

                      Do you agree with it as if it’s a law of nature?

                    • d7 said,

                      No, I wouldn’t say it’s a law of nature. However, if the relationship to the rules is the same for both the players and the GM, I would no longer make a distinction—I wouldn’t use the term “GM” anymore. What could it possibly mean then?

                      So yes, I think once a distinction has been made that there are players and then there is a GM, it definitionally means that they have a different relationship to the rules. This is what my metaphor presupposes, and I’ll agree that it becomes meaningless when its premises are removed.

                    • Callan S. said,

                      “So yes, I think once a distinction has been made that there are players and then there is a GM, it definitionally means that they have a different relationship to the rules.”

                      Well no, not at all. I could say there are players and there is a nolnol.

                      That doesn’t say anything about there being any distinction between them.

                      I’m not removing a premise – that premise just didn’t exist to begin with.

                      Now if a particular game says there’s a GM and also says he decides certain things, then that’s what that game text says. And that’s what my example says – where the text says there is a GM position and he decides if a diplomacy roll occurs at all.

                      Also on the forge for a long time it’s treated everyone as players – it’s just that one player is called GM and they typically have more duties assigned to them (assingned by the book and often the group) than other players have duties.

                      In the end, there are only players – sometimes they wear a viking hat, but it’s still just a player wearing a viking hat.

                      I want to say ‘No gods. Only men’ right now cause it’d sound awesome, but it’d probably confuse the whole thing…

                    • d7 said,

                      I am particularly hostile to semantic arguments, having been trained in such, so I’m not even going to touch “nolnol”.

                      I suspect we’re talking past each other.

                      How about this: assume a text that grants one player among all (called a “GM” for argument’s sake) a different relationship to the mechanics (which is not the same thing as the text). Let us call this difference “authority over the mechanics”. The effect of this difference is for this one special player (“GM”) to be allowed to alter the rules that the other players must obey.

                      One player has authority to change the rules.
                      The other players have responsibility to obey the rules.

                      Hence, different relationships.

                      If that basic premise isn’t not assumed, then levers, as I’ve defined them, are not a meaningful metaphor nor are they fruitful to discuss in the least. Of course, people are certainly free to define “lever”, “GM”, “player”, “text”, “mechanics”, and “kitchen sink” in some other way, but if so then I have no shared ground on which to build a conversation.

                    • Callan S. said,

                      I’m almost excruciatingly curious as to whether this was a case of taking it the GM is changing the rules when he says no, when really he’s just follow what rules there are and the rules give him the option to say no and he’s just saying no.

                    • d7 said,

                      I don’t think there’s anything I could say by way of explanation that I haven’t already.

                  • Callan S. said,

                    I’m not sure why being hostile to semantics matters if they are true, even by your own standards. I’ve seen some truths I did not like – but me not liking them wasn’t relevant to the truth of it. I’m assuming were trying to get at the truth?

                    Anyway, if the rules say the GM decides when a skill roll applies, he’s not changing any rules to simply follow that textual instruction and decide for or against a diplomacy roll occuring.

                    Just because he says no, doesn’t mean he’s changed the rules.

                    That’s for situations where the rules say what I wrote above. Are we talking about where that isn’t part of the RPG?

  7. otker said,

    “D7 uses diplomacy skill in D&D 3rd as an example of a lever ill placed: It negates all negotiation by skipping it with a single skill roll. That is bad if you want to have a game where negotiations are central.”

    A single skill roll would be bad, but I feel that a certain amount of abstract mechanics like die rolls are occasionally merited for things like diplomacy, and I’ll try my best to explain my stance here.

    I recently played through Batman: Arkham Asylum, and was immediately baffled by the existence of the “Detective Mode,” which highlighted certain objects, like removable grates and enemies, so that they could be easier to see. At first, I thought it was merely a way to make the game more accessible; the main draw of the game is the exploration and combat, not some sort of trial-and-error pathfinding hunt.

    What the Detective Mode here illustrates is the game attempting to allow the player to access the true skills that Batman possesses as a character, such as his preternatural ability to locate enemies with hearing, or the possible routes that removable grates might lead to. Detective Mode isn’t a handicap here, it’s merely trying to bridge the gap in the skills of perception that the player might lack, partially because of the user’s lack of skill (compared to Batman at least,) as well as limitations of the medium.

    So, therefore, one could use a die-roll system as a way to guide diplomacy and information-gathering. Players play characters that are physically stronger than them all the time, and they use die-rolls as an analogue for their character’s physical performance in combat and the like, so a mechanical system should be in place in order to illustrate mental or, in this case, lingual prowess.

    • d7 said,

      Absolutely! A dice mechanic can definitely be used to guide roleplay. One way of fixing Diplomacy in 3.x is to say:

      “You want to convince the king to not invade your tiny duchy? Okay, roll Diplomacy. Wow! You got a 32, that’s a stunning success. Now describe to me how the conversation went that led to the king changing his mind…”

      The problem with Diplomacy in 3.x is that not doing that isn’t against the rules, so a) a lot of groups will never think of it, and b) GMs who use it that way will need the players’ cooperation and enthusiasm. Now imagine if it was against the rules to use Diplomacy without afterward describing the conversation that resulted in success (or failure): the rules lawyers would be all over any GM who didn’t “play by the rules” and let them take that bit of control over the game after their roll. That would be awesome, I think. :D

      I’m actually quite a fan of some games’ social-interaction mechanics, because they do require (whether by mechanical enforcement/bribery or simply normative instructions that “this is how it is done and otherwise is cheating” in the books) that the roll is a guide to the answer, not the final answer.

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