In this year’s Games Galore, I put forward several design challenges. The one I think that is most atypical is Pure Innovation. This challenge is to explore design space past the familiar and into new territory. This can seem like an unhelpful constraint or an overly difficult one. But at the same time, design innovation is something I see as vital to design better games moving forward and to better understand how games work. These are the experiments that open our horizons. And in an environment where the standard advice is to iteratively tweak and recombine existing games, I think it is valuable to remind designers that open exploration is a real option.

So how do you do it?

There is more than one way to venture into uncharted spaces, just as there are many ways to build from existing games. One that has worked for me well is an approach I described years ago as holistic design.

Start with a seed, either a particular fictional situation or nuance you haven’t seen well represented or a mechanic or structure you haven’t seen used in a game before. Then take your mechanical or fictional idea and reflect it into the other side. If you have a mechanic ask yourself what this mechanics reflects or could represent in fiction. If you have a fictional idea find a mechanic that describes your idea reflecting its dynamics and depth. Then repeat this process, stitching together the fiction and the system until you have something complete enough to playtest.

I spend most of my gaming time running long campaigns with fairly little preparation. The purpose of this series is to describe some of the techniques I use. This technique is my favorite method to produce villains, a strategy I’ve dubbed the Antagonist Audition.

In running long games players and their characters will interact with many different characters in the world you are building together during play. As the GM (or what not), you will create most of these. Some of these characters will be prospective rivals, enemies, threats, or impediments to the players’ and their character’s goals.

What you want to take careful note of during these encounters is how the players react. If there is a strong enough connection or response, that suggests your obstructing character or characters may serve as a future villain. Just be careful that the response isn’t a borderline issue trigger or simple annoyance.

Based on that first audition, bring the antagonists who passed back for a second one. Think about your stable of interesting troublemakers and consider it when you are looking for a foil or problem down the line. This second audition is crucial, since here you will determine if the connection with the potential villain is strong enough to make a truly memorable enemy. Be open to other possibilities though, sometimes old enemies can become friends or at least allies.

Once an antagonist passes their second audition you can start thinking about their plans on a larger, longer scale. This is when you decide how your villain will be repeatedly running afoul of the players’ characters. This indicates you are leaving what I think of as the first phase of the campaign, you are establishing fixtures and starting to reincorporate elements more and more. Eventually if the villain survives and stays interesting it will make it to the last phase, where you crank up the tension and start to tie off the threads you’ve built together.

Long campaigns (6 months to 3 years) make up the majority of my gaming, mostly because I’ve learned how to make these games happen with little out of game preparation. That learning took a fair amount of trial and error, but I’m going to try to distill some of my methods for people interested in running long campaigns or just interested in how they can work.

Time and time again I have learned that the protagonists of a campaign need a center, a core place, person, and/or organization which binds them together and defines what their everyday lives look like. This center gives the players a context to fit their characters. And it gives a framework to me while running the game to decide how to turn everyday into the exciting.

Some examples of campaign centers I’ve used over the years:

  • Members or allies of an artificer guild in your city.
  • Escapees from a pair of powerful Fae settling in a quaint riverside Hungarian town just before WWI.
  • Members of a circus traveling the planes of existence and hiding the secret of a chosen one among its children.

At first I though the most useful aspect of having a campaign center is that it helps avoid questions of why these characters care about the same things or work together. But more and more I’ve realized that the center provides a crucial place of normalcy, a backdrop and a sanctuary so that play has an opportunity to become quieter and more revealing of these characters and their lives. Working from that you can find a mechanical or narrative way to bring play back to the center.

For the artificer guild I put the month’s quests, trouble, and opportunities into an accounting style ledger so the players could always see how their actions affected the all important bottom line. For the Hungarian town, the player characters would return to their day jobs revolving around a rowdy tavern as bouncers, brewers, or entertainers. For the circus the rhythm of arriving on a new plane and getting set up for one or more performances provided the backdrop to adventures, intrigue, and mystery. In each case, these centers provided a way to remind players how their characters fit into the world, not just as pawns following some adventure arc.

One way of designing an RPG is the notion of a physics engine. In this perspective the RPG mechanics and systems serve as a way to produce new events and determine how those events evolve, incorporating the input of the characters and players. Some designers strive to make a plausible physics engine that capture some intuition of how our world works. Others are willing or even eager to adopt the conceit of narrative physics, where the rules of storytelling and fiction in general have as much or more presence than adherence to a more concrete simulation. This ties into genre emulation and invention as goals of design.

In the study of formal language there is a tie between classes of language and physics. For example, the Church-Turing can be construed as an (unproved) proposition that the class of languages defining classical computing are precisely those which can be realized with discrete elements under the physics of our universe. By constraining phenomena or postulating components which exceed the laws of physics, new classes of languages are found. One way to turn this notion on its head is to think of these languages as expressing the relevant rules of their physics and translation bridges from one to the next. Translating between classes of language however leaves parts of these rules and interactions behind, they simple cannot be expressed in a class with different limits and capabilities.

This suggests as we look at the much less mathematical world of RPG design that we might encounter useful behavior in translating among games and physics engines. Perhaps some games translate among each other in powerful, expressive ways. Perhaps other classes of narrative physics may impose limits and capabilities which we simply cannot transfer into a different set of RPGs expressing their own set of physics. Perhaps one of the side effects of a culture of hacking RPGs is the discernment of which pieces translate into which new physics, like what must change or stay the same in an Apocalypse World hack to suit a new narrative structure and setting.

Long form play, the sort of RPG that continues with roughly the same group of people for many months or even years, has a special kind of allure. Some of that is the historical importance of the dedicated campaigners in setting assumptions and tone for RPGs as a hobby. But there is something deeper to explore.

If RPGs are languages and those languages evolve during play, then long form play is the opportunity to cultivate a unique, personal language shared among the players. This novel language cuts across the facets of the long form game. It includes the idiosyncrasies of fictional events, the context of fictional worlds, and the habits and other accumulated ways the players have learned to play.

Designing the basis for this endeavour often takes the tact of seeding many potentially fruitful ideas and subsystems and leaving enough freedom for a long form language to arise. On the other hand, laying a strong foundation for building long form play has potential, but remains rife with difficulties and pitfalls. In either case the evolving language of play needs open spaces to grow into, perhaps related to Vincent Baker’s fruitful void.

Almost all games build on some translation points with natural language, whether in general use or with a technical sub-language. Many RPGs borrow from the technical language of theater, film, and/or television to help inform and structure the acts of play. Beyond the system of play, these terms and the ideas that they package encourage play to encounter similar or related ideas and constraints. In this sense, these terms exert a sort of gravity on the events of play, attracting player behaviors towards certain patterns and away from others.

For example, many RPGs incorporate the notion of a scene, a particular theatrical idea about a set of events in a single time and place. Once you become used to breaking down a story into scenes it can be second nature, but it is far from the only way to structure a narrative. Scenes inhibit action which occurs across sizable distances or in fits and stops. They can easily encourage the notion that nothing interesting could be happening fictionally until it become part of a scene, and that if a scene happens it must be consequential to the story. These conceits are sensible from a theatrical perspective, but distinctly limit the scope of story to fit the constraints of theatrical expectations, which are by no means limits within an RPG.

It is impossible to avoid the gravity of terms, even outside of spoken language. Players typically expect to roll dice, and will do so even when uncalled for by the game. People respond to acted body-language (whether another’s or even their own) with tinges of real emotion. Expectations arise simply by calling a game an RPG. Design shouldn’t try to avoid this gravity, but understand and when necessary accept its warping effect on play. As long as this gravity serves most often to draw play towards your design goals it is a benefit, but care must be taken to make that happen.

Games which are built from multiple interacting sub-languages can present an experience of delving into the meanings of fictional events and player decisions or they can constrain the complexities of a variety of coupled situations. Before even creating the sub-languages and the translation points used to go between them, it is important to consider how players will recognize each sub-language. Each language within the game relies on a context. This context is the domain of play which it covers, and when that context arises, it serves as a learned signal to players to venture into that sub-language.

Deciding how to break down the experiences of play and in so doing how to setup the relationships between linked sub-languages. Whether those relationships represent layers of strategy or layers of meaning, the contexts for each sub-language should be clear. These contexts can be fictional experiences, such as gunfighting, seduction, or research. Or the contexts can arise in terms of the player experiences, such as performing or improving dialogue, collaboratively describing a new person, or drawing on a map. As always the root of these decisions are the design goals. One game may want to encourage players to consider the relationship between battle and romance, in another those two experiences can be broken apart to express something entirely different.

Even if the game your designing is meant to express a single unified language of play, you can rarely afford to ignore translation to and from that language. Translation is necessary for players to learn play from text or others and to discuss play. This translation of game elements into known modes of communication and experience is what makes the language of play accessible. It is possible to do without, and either trust in the natural human process of building new languages or even to intentionally wrap and set apart the experience of play.

At its simplest designing for translation means discovering or intentionally putting in points where the objects and actions of play closely relate to terms or dynamics in the other language. These points are the atomic elements of translation, the building blocks in which an experience in one language can begin to be expressed in the other. Both similarity and modeling (see my previous post) provide strong opportunities in building translation points – either in borrowing those used by your influences or in linking to the concepts you are simulating. This means cleaving close to your design goals can often give you all the translation points you need.

Even if translation points are not terribly difficult, it is important to keep them basic. Complex parts of your language of play will not easily translate in most cases. Instead the many moving parts need to be translated through the more basic parts of play to unravel the meaning. This produces short-hand concepts and terms, derived from our experiences comprehending larger parts of play, but these short-hand associations are not translation points.

What I call poetry in one language likely translates into another, but not in a simple and direct way. Calling them both poetry wraps an idea, but it doesn’t express the idea and certainly does not give me the tools to translate. For the same reason, “elevator pitches” – the short blurb describing a game experience, are heavily dependent on hard won understanding of myriad cultural and gaming fore bearers. They can be good targeted marketing, but they do instill understanding.

When designing languages, whether constructed “natural” languages (conlangs) or formal computation-style languages you should nail down some overarching goals. While in game design as in language design you can simply design ad hoc and see where it takes you, that approach is generally best for practicing design or exploring raw design space rather than utility. A conlang, a new programming language, or an RPG all present at least two very distinct approaches: similarity and modeling.

The similarity approach to designing a language explicitly starts with one or more direct influences from existing languages and (usually) a plan for a few places to innovate or synthesize upon that foundation. For these designs, which in RPGs could be called hacks or heartbreakers depending on context and inclination, this foundation isn’t really laziness. Knowingly or unknowingly familiarity is an important part of these languages. These RPGs and languages are clearly situated within the meta-dialogue of its influences, even if that position doesn’t turn out to be positive or prominent. 

On the other hand, modeling takes something like an imagined society without a sense of self, a logical calculus, or a distributed theatrical performance and tries to capture their dynamics and meaning. While familiar tools are useful for this approach, the overriding goal is to emulate or simulate the system. Fidelity is key.

There is a continuum between similarity and modeling, trading off between the goals of familiarity and fidelity.  Innovation has a place here too, and there is something thrilling in exploring a part of design space without overwhelming ulterior motives. But it is those motives which help turn the speculative exploration into a concrete discovery.

Language doesn’t determine thought, but it certainly influences it. Even just by habitually training the concepts most commonly interpreted from a dominant language’s usage will bias our thinking toward some perspectives and not others. This tendency is familiar in RPG design, where the language of play affects our most likely choices, even if others exist. A small set of prominent moves or options encourages a player to consider only those on the list, even if flexibility is provided to go far beyond them.

This effect doesn’t end with lists of actions. The way we interact with story and characters can have a surprising effect on what we consider. The languages of character performance lend themselves to emotions, inner lives of those characters, and a concentration on simple expressible relationships. Things like long term character growth or consistency, planning, and details of a setting or situation are likely to be given much less attention. Likewise, a tactical system encourages thinking in terms of risks and benefits, and not the emotional costs of those choices.

Weaving together multiple sub-languages of play is a way to temper the impact of these blind spots, but it can be itself risky. Sometimes you can combine sub-languages and they serve only to highlight what each does not understand about the perspective of the others. Each sub-language gives rise to a separate world with little holding them together. On the other hand, if those links are well designed, then these different domains can shed new light on each other. Together these sub-languages create a unified full language of play which can express perspectives wholly different than its parts.