A few thoughts intersected the other day. Let’s see if I can get them down.

Here’s the short of it: balance is a canard. You don’t want balance, at least not in an RPG. You want interesting choices. Balance is a response to one kind of failure of interesting choices, that of a dominant strategy. But you can have a lack of interesting choices in the other direction: if every choice is equivalent, that is, if your choices are false choices, then your game (qua game) suffers just as much as if it had a dominant strategy.

So, you need to make things asymmetrical, maybe even unbalanced (gasp, gape). It’s a balance to strike, between the fire of a dominant strategy and the ice of false choices. You need to make the experience of play involve moments of “if I had only done X”, so that the rest of the choices you make are meaningful.

Now, there’s a strong version and a weak version of this claim. The weak is that, for all choices, you should have at least two meaningfully different options, where it is not transparently clear which will be the better one. The strong version is that you should also have some options that are clearly worse. I only mean to maintain the weak version, but with the caveat that what is clearly worse to you may well be compelling to someone else.

There’s another wrinkle to this, which Austin articulated very nicely the other day: when he comes to the table, he wants to see the choices other people make, and he wants those choices to be different from his own. So you need choices that ramify into other meaningful choices.

OK, theory, fine. How do you do this? Obviously, that’s context-dependent. But here are my principles on the matter:

  • Make your game have multiple axes of interaction, which are not directly comparable. You can think of this as “choose the problems you want to expect”. In Apocalypse World, for example, you can focus on personal effectiveness or group effectiveness: are you a badass, or are you a badass because of and through your gang? Obviously, the latter comes with some problems—things that aren’t in your control like challenges for leadership, supply issues, communication issues, etc. But at the same time, there are things you can do with and as a gang that you simply can’t as an individual.
  • Play enough to see the ruts you make when you play. If, after choosing M, you consistently go from there to Q, F, R, then consider collapsing those options. Especially if there’s no other way onto that path, and everyone else you see follows it the same way.
  • Make a variety of things in your game. Like, mechanically meaningful widgets. This can be variety within a category of thing, or a variety of categories of things. This is a contentious point; a lot of games have been made, many very good, without many types of things. I acknowledge that this is a taste thing for me. I like games where you get to choose from lists of Distinctions/Moves/Gifts/whatever, and make up your own, and engage with the game outside the act of play-as-play. So, if that’s not your aim or style, at least help the players to make interesting situations where the choices they have to make in the story are valid.
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More and more these days, I am fascinated by the power and role of decisions. Decisions create buy-in, generate unexpected outcomes, and provide drama. As I’ve come to see it, most of all, decisions provide meaning.

But not all decisions create meaning—to do that, a decision needs to be personal, needs to have weight, and has to be visible. Each of these things is challenging to engineer reliably. I’ve been trying to take stock of what works for me. This is what I’ve come up with so far.

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Recently, I joined an Exalted game a friend of mine was running. After nearly a year of indie-only play, I came to the game with fresh eyes. I was surprised once I got into it, though, at my comparative lack of frustration at the long list of obtuse rules. Don’t get me wrong, many rules in Exalted make me want to set the world on fire. But I didn’t just slam the book down and back out of the game. Instead I got roped into this wonderlandian rabbit hole of Exalted character generation. I wondered why it hooked me so much when I knew that ultimately, Exalted just isn’t my schtick. It got me thinking about pre-play in general, and what keeps people attached to crunch and rules-heavy games like Exalted or D&D.

And then it hit me. At no other point in these more traditional games do you make nearly as many decisions as you do when making a character. The joy, the real good stuff, is in that early sweep of decision-making. You get to define a person, optimize them, stylize them, dress them, power them, engineer them for the moments of badassery you want them to have. There’s a relevant quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail here:

“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”

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So in the Dragon Age computer/console games, you fight these endless hordes of faceless monsters called Darkspawn. The hero of the story must kill their leader in order to neutralize the giant horde of them that is threatening the ambiguously middle-ages european landscape. These monsters are the giant threat that the hero must deal with, but ultimately the hero’s victory over the Darkspawn is unsatisfying because the hero faces a foe that represents no moral quandary. Even the final boss, the Big Bad, is a mook! It is as faceless as its minions—despite being a fallen Elder God it offers no commentary, no insight whatsoever on the human or trans-human condition. It merely roars and directs its mindless masses. Luckily, I am finding that the sequel is much better about this, though certainly not perfect.

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This week, Rob Donoghue has been posting a compare-and-contrast about video games and tabletop games. On Tuesday, he said something that’s been brewing in my head for a bit.

The key point from that post, for my purposes, is that video games are very tolerant of failure—there’s almost no cost for failing, just the time invested in the failed attempt, because you can keep trying until you get it right. (I hope I’ve done his point justice, anyway.)

That didn’t sit right with me. Not because I don’t think he’s right—I do. That is a property of video games. But I think it’s purely a flaw.

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