We like to divide things, I guess. Often, it’s into binaries. Today, it’s a troika.1
There are three things I’m currently thinking about in RPG design, and those are story, emotional response, and interaction.
Story is an obvious one. Especially if your game is in any way genre-emulating, but even if it’s not particularly, it’s worth knowing what sort of story comes from play. I think story can be anything from “something with a happy ending” down to “the 1851 printing of Moby-Dick“, so let’s look at what stories some RPGs make:
- Fiasco: a story where everything goes wrong.
- Dread: a story where the main characters are at constant risk of death or destruction.
- Apocalypse World: a story where things break, things change, and you find moments of beauty.
- Montsegur 1244: a story where a group of Cathar heretics in the south of France in 1243-1244 live and love and fight while the castle in which they hide is beseiged. Eventually, some might escape, some will burn, and some might recant.
Things can get more or less specific. I’m amused at how, at this level of definition, you could play Montsegur 1244 with any of the other three games, without any loss. But of course, story isn’t everything.
So, what about emotional response? Well, while a designer can’t control what people feel when they play (can any artist do that to their audience?), they can certainly shape and encourage certain sorts of responses. Dread makes you feel, at every moment, like something awful is going to happen, even though most of the time, nothing awful happens, because most of the time, you’re sitting well away from the tower, making sure that nothing bumps it. Apocalypse World makes you feel like things change, up and down and rapidly and nothing can be relied on, good or bad, but maybe things are usually a little more bad than good. In both cases, the emotional response is very directly tied to the crunchy-mechanics, and while I don’t think this has to always be the case, I can’t think of a counter-example at the moment.
Anyway, I’m not sure I see quite the wide continuum of degree of emotional response, but maybe it’s there. There’s certainly a wide continuum of kind of emotional response.
Finally, there’s interaction. This one is really tricky to me, as I’ve just begun to think about it.2 I can see how interaction happens at the table in certain games, at least in terms of loci of attention and such, but I don’t know what it means or what to do with it.
But I know it’s important.
When you’re playing an RPG, it’s never just you. Even a solo RPG, you’re interacting with the game and its mechanics. But let’s focus for the time being on interacting with other players. I suppose I’ve thought about this a bit before, when considering whether Et in Arcadia Ego should have a GM or not. There’s a basic difference in GMful vs. GMless games that I think of like iron filings in the presence or absence of a magnet: with a GM, the non-GM players tend towards interacting adversarially with the GM, and interacting cooperatively with each other. In the absence of a GM, players interact with each other both more and more adversarially.3
What other sorts of interactions do you see as a result of design in games?