Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Cognitive Load

I ran a little playstorm of Et in Arcadia Ego this weekend. It was very informative! One of the best things to come out of it was that, while there are many changes to make, I did not have to rip everything down and start from the ground up again, which is a sign of forward progress.

However, I wanted to talk a bit about the particular observations that struck me in analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

There were two big things: the cognitive load of “does this rule kick in?” and the attention load of “how long does this rule take to sort out before we can continue the moment of fiction we were in?”

Let’s quote Apocalypse World for a moment:

You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize. All fine.

All these rules do is mediate the conversation. They kick in when someone says some particular things, and they impose constraints on what everyone should say after. Makes sense, right?

So, this applies to Arcadia, too. But the specific tuning was off.
First, “does this rule kick in?”. Players had nine things on their sheet that they had to watch for, and then the list of moments (like Apocalypse World moves; we had five, but were open to adding more when we felt we needed them). That’s a lot to keep track of. The GM (me) had only the moments to keep especial track of, but I was also keeping half an eye on “how the game worked” and the PCs‘ 9 non-moment triggers.

Too much.

One of the hidden geniuses, then, of Apocalypse World‘s onion-skin structure, is that you can play it with a small set of “does this kick in” and expand as desired and able. Good to know.

Second, “how long does this rule take to sort out?”. The nine things on the PCs‘ sheets were small—draw a card or take a token, depending. The moments, though, were heavyweight: choose a number of tokens, and a card from your hand, advance both secretly, reveal, go around in card order spending tokens to get outcomes from lists. This can work, perhaps, but not in the middle of an in-character conversation. By the time we had figured out the outcomes, we had forgotten what we were doing to trigger it all.

Basically, if the rules were “mediating the conversation” in Vincent’s words above, they were doing it in an intrusive, pedantic and domineering way: you dreaded the rules stepping in and saying “well, actually” because they were precisely the kind of conversational participant who says “well, actually”.

So where do we go from here? Well, we’ve slimmed it down a lot—just spend a token to ensure certain kinds of outcomes, which you can do as a seamless physical action while you have an in-character conversation, or the GM can make a brief interruption to remind you. If someone really objects, though, they can escalate to cards, and force a larger back-and-forth, generating those side-effect consequences I love so much, and eventually determining the outcome in question. We’ll see how that plays soon!

3 responses to “Cognitive Load”

  1. This situation has me pondering a third party who’s not actually role-playing, but whose job it is to keep track of mechanical wingdings from other characters’ sheets that the role-players don’t wanna think about in the moment. Seems appropriate for a game where outside forces are constantly judging you ….

    1. Hah! Perhaps not actually appropriate for this game, not least of all because it sounds really unpleasant as a role, but not an unfruitful thing to think about.

      1. I thought evil governess was on your list of archetypes