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

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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Abstract nonsense: Systems

26 March, 2008 at 4:39 pm (definition, roleplaying-games, rpg theory) (, , , , )

This is another highly abstract rambling about a highly abstract matter of systems, in no way limited to roleplaying, though still applied to them. You were warned.

Definition

My working definition for system is that it must have at least the following qualities:

  • A means of input.
  • An output.
  • A process that uses the input to produce the output.

Trivial (and, hence, boring) systems are a legion. Some notable cases: Systems with fixed output are kind of boring. Systems where the input and output are independent (as in, knowing one tells nothing about the other; that is, they don’t affect each other) are random (or have fixed output).

As one can see, the concept is exceedingly broad. This is intentional.

The good, the bad and the aesthetically interesting

A system is well-designed (towards particular goal) if it produces the outputs that the goal says it should produce. Bad system produces outcomes contradictory with the goal. Elegant systems produce relevant outputs (with regards to the goal) and do so with as minimal a process as is possible.

A game of chess, for example, is a system. It has inputs (moving the playing pieces, social aspects), outputs (victory, defeat, draw, emotional responses of players) and processes (rules, the way humans work). The desired outputs are victory for one player, defeat to the other one, and an intellectually stimulating game for both. Draws are not a desired outcome but rather an annoying side effect of the rules. (Aside: It is also possible to build a strategy in chess such that the starting player will always win or a draw will happen; it is just so complicated nobody has done it yet, to my knowledge, but it is certainly possible.) Chess is not completely elegant: It has a number of rules for specific circumstances. One could argue that Go is as good as chess at its goals and more elegant, which would make Go a better game for someone with the stated goals (intellectual stimulation, determining a winner). Chess is still better for other goals, namely for learning to, say, play chess.

The voting system has the goal of finding out the opinion of people about (say) who should be in power and further giving those people the power. Personally, I’d vote for the Social democratic party and the Green party. I can’t vote for both. Hence, the system can’t take that information into consideration, which weakens it and biases it towards those already in power.

As it applies to roleplaying games

Roleplayers want different things out of their games. There are some things that most players don’t mind: Consistency of the fiction and of the rules and something resembling a story. (I am not saying that people always play for story or for consistency, but rather that they wouldn’t usually mind if the game remained as good in other aspects and had better story or was more consistent; the possibility of this is a different subject entirely.)

An elegant roleplaying game is one that has a set of design goals, is good for the kinds of gaming those include and has little material that is redundant to the design goals. Many Forge-games (as in, indie games coming from the community around or nearby the Forge) are elegant. This means that they are utterly focused. One can see this as a good or a bad point. Compare and contrast to euro games in boardgaming scene.

Clearly inelegant design methodology is the exception-based design one can see in D&D 3rd and MtG; in both, most cards/feats/class powers are exceptions of the general rules. Some like this, some dislike. Generally speaking, one can get a similar experience with a leaner design over a short period of time.

Good roleplaying games, bad roleplaying games

Elegance or inelegance, though loaded words, are not the grounds for saying that a particular system is bad or good (barring extremes). Personally I do prefer elegant systems, but that is my call.

I’d say an rpg is badly-designed in so far as the processes work against some of the goals. For example, if one assumes that the new World of Darkness core book is supposed to be used in investigative horror gaming, the specific combat feats merits seem to be bad design by encouraging combative characters and focusing attention there. (If one considers how WoD is likely to actually be played, they are not that bad a choice, after all.)

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