Blinders; Once More with Feeling.

First, the previous entry got mentioned on RPG Theory Review, making this the 3rd mention there of this blog, and the fourth of CSI Games.
Second, this is the second post of December 2006, I’ll do my best to keep at least two entries a month, which leads us to the next point!
Third, if you have any ideas or thoughts regarding CSI Games as a whole, or something that might be relevant, feel free to send me articles via my email and I’ll upload them. I think content from more contributors should be helpful, especially concerning that my writing is not that clear.
Fourth. There’s a good reason all the entries are shown on the front page: They are all open to discussion. Feel free to peruse and comment, and engage in discussion on all entries. It’s not only optionable, but encouraged!

There’s already an entry planned for the upcoming weekend, another for the week after, and yet another (and this one will be most interesting) for when Jessica Hammer completes her part of our “trade” :)

I think this is an apt topic for the last subject of the year. It actually closes a circle with the first post on the topic of Blinders (disregarding the Meta-Chanics post which is only a bridge). The issue came back to my mind because of the thread “Does System Matter?” on The Forge.
I looked at my own game, Cranium Rats, and what happened in its playtesting. I wrote in the manuscript that there should be violence and interwoven storylines. In the playtests the characters were mundane and normal if there ever were mundane characters. As such, violence was low.
But the storylines slowly began to cross with one another, work-place of one is the shelter of the other, one sees the third as he drives to work, etc. But there were no benefits to this behaviour, if the players had the characters and their stories cross-over or not, the effects would be the same. There is nothing changed, nothing gained, nothing lost, in each of the scenarios.

But those of the Indie crowd keep saying “System Does Matter“, and that was when System usually meant “Mechanics”. If I were to write in the game’s manuscript: “Storylines should interweave and cross-over, with the storylines drawing tighter and tighter and towards a conclusion where all the loose-ends are tied together”, and this were to occur in the game, then why do you pay someone to write game-rules and game-text, the mere idea is enough.

We keep saying we’re “beyond” Cops and Robbers, that this is not make-believe, but make-believe shaped by rules which help you govern what occurs.We have different rules for different games. We use rules to help maintain the mood and theme we want to introduce. But that means introducing rules, and not telling people what kind of game they want and how to get there. They can do it themselves by imbibing the source-material.

There’s a simple way to see if a game does what you want it to do, or rather, if the mechanics do what you want them to. Present someone with just the mechanics and see what kind of game emerges. This isn’t the complete game, this does not include all the background and colour, this does not include the interactions between the players. But this is not your goal, this is you checking if your mechanics produce the effect that you desire.

If the mechanics don’t do what you want them to, you have two options:
First, add mechanics that add what you want to the game.
Second, add advice telling people what they need to do to get the desired result. This is also fine, but be aware that this is what you’re doing.

After an hour and a half of chatting with Joshua A.C. Newman and Nathan Paoletta about this post, we discovered what was unclear in the post. I add it in this format because it’s a conclusion and it’s an edit. The article though unclear still has its purpose, which is served better once these are added.

  • I’m not saying advice are bad, I’m saying it’s their job to point at what is already done by the mechanics.
  • If your mechanics do something you don’t want them to, remove said mechanics.
  • If your game doesn’t do something it should, add mechanics.
  • If advice in your game REPLACE the mechanics, then something is wrong, and you should either add mechanics or remove that advice/thing from the game.
  • It doesn’t work the other way around though, if something doesn’t work, or the mechanics don’t do what you need, you do not add advice.

And why say something once if you can twice?
If your gameplay does something, but it’s not included in the rules, but in the advice, either excise the advice or add a rule

4 comments on “Blinders; Once More with Feeling.

  1. Matt Snyder says:


    I agree that it could be a good test of a game’s mechanics to see that they produce the kind of gameplay behavior you desire in an “advice-less” format. Theoretically, a neat idea.

    That said, I don’t think I’m drawing the same conclusions you are from that approach about System Does Matter.

    Specifically, you indicate that when a designer has mechanics that do NOT produce the desired actual-play behaviors, there are two choices. One can either add mechanics (which I presume to also mean remove and/or revise mechanics), or one can provide advice.

    I do not agree that the second option is workable. If mechanics do not do what one intends, no amount of advice will produce the desired actual-play behavior. People may follow the advice, but they aren’t REWARDED for doing so. That’s what system (not mechanics) should do: Reward (and, possibly, punish) behaviors in actual play.

    So, my question is what do you mean by advice? Because I know, having chatted with you previously about this, I don’t have a full grasp on what YOU mean by that. We already talked about how difficult it is to separate out mechanics from advice in a text. Even with “just mechanics” there must be some modest level of instruction to explain how to use them. So, is that advice?

  2. Guy Shalev says:

    It is the Indie design idea that this is not a workable solution. That is, that of adding advice.
    And yet, it is workable, it works, if not for the right reasons.
    People often comment that what makes games fun(or not fun) is not the game itself, but the way it is played. People play D&D, Shadowrun, Mechwarrior and any other number of games the same way. This is largely due to advice (because let’s face it, their mechanics are not always similar).
    This is workable, the game works and players are having fun. But that is in spite of the mechanics, not because of them. Them which supposedly make the game and its backbone.

    Advice is, to be frank, anything not supported by mechanics.
    You tell me the themes of the game, I will create a story that follows these themes, even if it does not arise naturally from gameplay.
    You tell me what kind of turns and twists the story should contain, I’ll include these in the story, even if they’re not a natural evolution of what happens at the table (and this also deals with the question of Story as method or result).
    You tell me what form of gameplay should be like, competitive or otherwise, and I’ll play accordingly, no matter what the design actually suggests.

    Now, obviously, for a full game we need advice, it cuts down on the time it takes people to figure out for their own what kind of gameplay is actually supported by the mechanics, and creates tighter experience – especially in tight enviroments such as one-shots.

    Thus, this is stated as a way to test your mechanics and game-text. See what kind of gameplay the mechanics give rise to, make sure that they only give rise to what you want, and give rise to all that you want, and then write the advice that goes with it.

  3. Matt Snyder says:

    I think we’re mainly agreeing. Yes, it could be a good way to test your mechanics. However, should you find that the mechanics do not support your aims, I see two options that differ from your options.

    Option one is to re-write the mechanics so they do align with your design intentions.

    Option two is to re-write the advice to match your mechanics.

    I consider any option to write advice IN SPITE of the mechanics foolish and poor design.

    It’s happened many, many times in the RPG hobby. In the long term, I think it has actually been harmful to the hobby in a variety of ways. For example, it sets up many false presumptions about “what role-playing is,” and also likely contributes to social confusion and mismatched expectations among groups of people playing games together.

  4. Guy Shalev says:

    Short answer, yes.

    If you re-write the advice to match the mechanics, when these do not support your goals, you are also changing the goals of the game, basically creating a new game.

    It is sometimes necessary, but as always, you should know this is what you’re doing.

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