Game Design, Gamemastering, Gaming

You don’t design games, no one does

Featuring a completely contrived but interesting Four Layer Model for Gameplay

So, I create LARP experiences, design games and the like. That means I think a lot about what makes something a game, and I like teasing out how systems work. Sometimes I do this just for fun, and sometimes it reveals some important things we should keep in mind when we are designing, running and playing games with each other.

This is one of those books that either eats your brain or puts you to sleep in 5 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

A few years ago, I started unpacking the difference between a system and a game after reading the seminal and amazing book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a weighty 777 page tome about mathematics, rules and the nature of systems. And in spinning out these ideas, I came up with some categories of what goes into designing and playing a game. And I came to a beautifully weird conclusion

I don’t design games. No one designs games.

We design systems – and we might suggest, cajole, pressure and clear our throats while nudging our head in the direction of how they might be turned into a game. But only a player can choose which game they play.

Beyond that, as a designer, I’m powerless. And that’s wonderfully humbling and utterly frightening.

Unpacking the Game Box

Now, going up to a game designer and telling them they don’t design games is a pretty bold move. It depends on a lot of definitions of what a game means, what rules mean, what a system means; and my choices of definitions here are just one option among many. But I think they tell us something useful about how playing games really works.

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Game Design, Gamemastering, LARP

Nerdball: How a LARP becomes the game no one likes to play

…But we end up playing anyway.

Let’s talk about a concept a friend of mine introduced to me that is ridiculously useful for talking about LARP – and how LARPs have gone wrong in the past. This idea is called nerdball – an antagonistic and competitive angry killer bee mutation of long-form campaign LARPs that we need to start talking about.

But before we can talk about nerdball, let’s outline the two healthy forms of LARP – collaborative and competitive. Every LARP contains elements of both, but certainly skew one way or another.

Collaborative vs. Competitive Play

collaborative game is a game built on the consensus of most or all players as to how it turns out. Outcomes are negotiated, information is shared out of character to allow people to steer toward a dramatic conclusion. Everyone has incredible amounts of control over their story, and cannot be compelled to take part in a story they don’t want to be part of. They offer a rich story-focused experience but usually at the cost of dramatic tension, uncertainty and the excitement that comes from those two things.

competitive game is a struggle where the outcome is determined by the skills, finesse and luck of various players in fictional roles within the world. The competition may be physical (boffer combat), political (Byzantine machinations) or anything else. But a competitive game ultimately pits and hopefully refines the skills of the various players in a healthy environment, and where a sense of fairness, healthy competition and sportsmanship prevails.

Both styles have passionate advocates, and I consider both styles to be equally valid. That doesn’t mean all forms of either are healthy or good for a game, but I’ve written more extensively about that elsewhere. But then.. there’s nerdball.

The Nerdball. Impressed?

What’s Nerdball?

When I first heard this term, it was referred to as nerd football but in discussions I’ve been having about it, it rapidly got shortened to nerdball. So, what’s nerdball?

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Game Design, LARP, Role-playing Games

The LARP Antagonist’s Oath

What is an Antagonist?

A protagonist and his or her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

– Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Antagonists are not just villains.

An antagonist is any character which is defined by their opposition to characters, or by creating obstacles and pressures for other characters. They can even be allies, but they exist to push a character’s limits or challenge their assumptions. They create growth and story.

The best antagonists are not limited in the physical or political conflict they create. They create conflicts in the minds of others – moral challenges and inner choices. They are the fuel of another’s character story engine. The challenge they present is meant to taken on and result in a better story.

LARP’s Unique Player Antagonists

The traditional role of the antagonist relies on the existence of clear protagonists on a journey for the antagonist to complicate and oppose. The antagonist can be a guidepost for the story, with other characters growing in relation to them. The antagonist can still develop as a character, but they do not grow with the same visible force and focus as the protagonist.

But in LARP, there is no clear single story. There is no camera following about one particular group around. There are often dozens if not hundreds of players involved in a LARP game.

So, every player might be someone’s antagonist, even though they are pursuing their own arc and story. True, a gamemaster might set up a major plot with an explicit NPC antagonist by which all players must struggle against. But there is another type of antagonist in LARP – the player antagonist, the character designed and destined to be a provocative force in a game.

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Game Design, LARP

Shades: a freeform LARP about ghosts that’s really about trauma

I finished the second draft of Shades, which is the first presentable version of the game I tested earlier this year. As my players were quick to point out, despite the conceit of it being about ghosts, it’s really about dealing with trauma and regret. It’s appropriate. In the purest Gothic tradition, ghosts are about things that are unresolved or the reverberation of bad events from the past. I am considering submitting this to Fastaval for next year’s competition. Let’s hope it translates well into Danish.

You can read and comment on the Google Doc here.

Photo Credit: Zachariah Birkenbuel, – Creative Commons, Attribution license

Game Design, LARP

Nordsplaining and Amerijerking: How not to be a jerk discussing LARP online

Sometimes we need to ask the question, as a community talking across borders and oceans online, are we really talking to each other and helping each other? Or are we engaging in aggrandizing or hindering behavior? In conversations about LARP online, I’ve noticed exactly two phenomenon – one more subtle than the other – that hinder and disrupt conversations about design and development.

I have dubbed them Nordsplaining and Amerijerking, after the two communities who most frequently indulge in them. I will put this out there to start with – yes, you do these things more noticeably than other groups. You can either deny it or own up to it, but either way, the ancient scholars of India invented the number zero because they knew one day I’d have to count the number of fucks I give.

Enter the Nordsplainer

Webb’s Law of Nordsplaining: In any serious game design talk regarding rules and implementation, the chance someone will interrupt to go on about how this proves some inherent flaw in the very concept of a rules-heavy game approaches 1.

Imagine that you have a car, and you ask in a public forum, “Hey, should I turbocharge or supercharge my engine?” You get a few responses, some useful insights and advice start to emerge. And then someone shows up, and begins talking loudly and repeatedly about how you should not even have a car, but should instead ride a bicycle. Every comment on the engine tuning is met with the keen observation that you would not have to do these things if you had a bicycle and not a car. Several of this person’s friends show up and begin dominating the entire conversation, talking about how much better bicycles are than cars.

The conversation is derailed. The insight you sought is lost in arguments the bicyclists started with the gearheads, or just by the bicyclists high-fiving each other digitally due to their enlightened position. You are not getting a bicycle instead of your car just because this crowd showed up. They are mainly congratulating themselves on their own opinion and evangelizing their preferred choice rather than addressing the question. And you aren’t getting the answers you wanted to make your decision.

This disruption makes them, however friendly and well-intentioned, jerks. And what’s worse, they probably don’t know that they are being jerks. But that’s why I’m here, boys and girls.

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