The Play’s the Thing

Friday night is Game Night, and Game Day found me bogged down in meetings until about 4:00pm. When I came home, after making sure my partner had energy enough for games after her own hectic day, I sat down to put us together a couple of characters from That System. She wanted to make a goblin thief, so I made her a goblin thief in the span about twenty minutes, making sure that it more or less satisfied her succinct vision of what a thief ought to be. Then we had dinner and I took a shower, with left me with about fifteen minutes to design an all-purpose priest. (Notably, one player who was not entirely prepared for the game due to Life and Such arrived and had a functional warrior generated for her by another player in about 10-15 minutes.) We’re all gaming vets, and we are prone to play plenty of one-shot diversions, so we’re well-versed in getting underway in a hurry.

At one level, that speed of character generation is a virtue, though I should note that part of the reason we were able to create folks on paper so efficiently is because we’ve used That System plenty of times before. At another level, however, a couple of us came away with prototypical, somewhat generic characters. We didn’t go out of our way to optimize, but the contours of establishment and development seemed to be pretty clear-cut for most of the known flavors. In the case of my priest, for example, taking default settings at every stage was a perfectly viable approach. I didn’t need much imagination to get going (a benefit and a drawback, for all the usual reasons). Of particular interest to me in the framing of my critter was the stage at which I had to pick basic spells. As much as I wanted to adopt some exotic and flavorful options, to design a feller who was esoterically zesty, I found myself leaning toward the more serviceable, versatile ones again and again. The same held true for most peeps at the table, who are practiced and skillful enough to make the sorts of choices that make a group gel and, conveniently, enhance its chances of surviving the session. Assuming folks are even vaguely social, it’s a course of empire most of us are prone to follow.

The setup and play–aided, abetted, and complicated by my own game design thoughts, which I’ll speak of in a moment–brought to mind my first experience with a game called Invisible Sun. I had more lead time going in to game prep, so I was able to mull my character ideas over for a bit, and I was also new to the mechanics, which can get fairly fiddly. What emerged as a result was a distinctive critter–distinct in my imagination, at least, as I’m never entirely sure how much characterization I actually bring to the table. It helped that I had only an uncertain sense of what was actually possible within the game framework, but it was a much more invested sense of establishment and a much less predictable arc of development. (For one player I think the experience of character creation and play was even more transformative, helping them to appreciate their own life in illuminating and indicative ways.) I think there’s a buttery zone somewhere in between both kinds of design: a mode that lets you get things underway in a hurry, and a mode that makes you feel deeply invested and productively uncertain–but that also makes you feel hopeful and curious to see what happens.

Peeling away the layers of a game experience is always a touch-and-go process, but I think at day’s end these reflections on play (improved by some questions about game mechanics I posed to my folk over the weekend) helped me to pin down a few of the essential motives that bring folk to the table. Foremost among them, all matters of mechanics aside is the desire to have creative, meaningful fun. Both the noun and the adjectives are a little loaded there, and part of me feels like that looks a little trite on the screen. All told, however, I think they capture the tensions there worth exploring in terms of game design. It’s hard to be creative without some measure of scaffolding (an infinite field of possibility can actually get in the way of creativity); it’s hard for players to create when they don’t know what’s viable. At the same time, it’s easy to get bogged down in mechanics and branchings, and it’s easy to feel as though many developmental options are functionally foreclosed. Meaning is an even more slippery critter, in that it’s a broad concept that has to cover countless points on the compass. For some folks gaming is utterly transformative, and every game is a vehicle that lets them try on personalities and possibilities, test visions and ambitions, attitudes and values. But for many folk any game that lets us escape from the drudgery of life for a few hours is all the meaning we need. And fun is the most elusive concept, one of those know-it-when-you-feel-it phenomena. It requires an almost spiritual commitment to the game, a readiness to find delight even when your character meets with reversal after reversal, even when the dice seem to be aligned against you. I don’t think it’s possible for a game simply to engineer those experiences, to deliver creativity, or meaning, or fun reliably, but I think a nicely-made game can yield conditions that allow them to happen, an openness that creates the space in which they become possible.

The game I hope to design started in an entirely unrelated intuition, a sense that it involved a structural something I hadn’t seen before, but before I get all the mental machinery up and running I feel like I need to refine my Why while I take out the How for a few test drives. As is the case with most journeys, there are countless ways of setting out, but the reasons for going at all, when we could just hide out in our hobbit-holes and read our books, is well worth pinning down.

Victory Conditions

Photo by Alperen Yazg─▒ on Unsplash

This morning, as an index of just how much time I’ve squandered over this long weekend, I’ve begun doing math.

It started out as a bit of innocent mischief, as I wondered how a blood loss mechanic might work in a horror game, a TTRPG. I could think of some simple ways to simulate the effect (deductions from dice rolls, or the use of dice pools from which dice might be removed over time), but I was wondering about a means of making the experience more intense, more vivid, and more visceral. I settled on a potentially lopsided yet simple opposed roll mechanic (e.g. a wounded player rolling 1d6, for instance, vs. a machete-wielding narwhal rolling 1d12), hence my tumble down the rabbit hole of variance and probability.

Because way leads on to way, as the kids say, I’m now neck-deep in thoughts about victory conditions. I was thinking about what it means to “win” a horror game, which tends to be a problematic concept if there’s no ulterior goal to be realized. Over Halloween, for example, I ran a summer camp game in which the players learn that there are one or more murder-monsters hanging out in a (problematically) nearby asylum. Session A involved all sorts of backstory building, in which the players discovered a bit about the spoopy history of the milieu and the threats they might face if they dared to enter the abandoned facility. At the start of Session B, they discovered that a) the vague threats were almost certainly real, and b) that there were artifacts on the grounds of the asylum potentially worth bajillions (one of the players found a Gustav Klimt original long thought lost in an early scene). What did the PCs do when faced with such a bepicklement? They Noped the heck out of there tout de suite, which is an eminently reasonable choice. In that kind of context–and, to be frank, most any context–not getting murdered counts as a win.

In the gaming space we tend to be fairly pragmatic, after all. We calculate risks and rewards a little differently, but we also tend to avoid self-immolating behavior, even when we might be involved in the serious business of saving kingdoms or civilizations. At the same time, we dive into games for scads of reasons–for the vicarious experience, for imaginative self-actualization, for collaboration, and (one rather hopes) for fun. If you’ve ever seen some of the wholesome variations on the “Are Ya Winning, Son?” meme, you know that there are a few thousand ways to win.

Life tends to be like that, too, though I reckon we reflect on both wins and losses in equal measure. Yesterday I sent off a novella to a publisher about a week ahead of schedule, which feels like a significant win, but I also decided that there’s not much point trying to actively maintain a connection with an auld friend, which feels like an abstract kind of loss. There’s a tension we all have to navigate, a network of pushing and pulling that we can only tweak to a modest degree if we’re playing fair.

The catches, of course, are that a) not everyone agrees on what it means to win, and b) not everyone is interested in playing fairly. Not terribly long ago, for example, I attended a gaming session that was ultimately (and responsibly, and thoughtfully) scrubbed. The folk who were running the game realized that a guest player sitting in on the session wasn’t particularly interested in any of the collaborative or interactive ends of a game; that player really just wanted to break stuff–which is a play style, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself especially well to a collective social diversion. And one sees discrepancies more routinely on social media, where any given day will see people playing at politics (or law, or economics, etc.) in cases that for them are thought experiments but for others might be matters of subsistence or survival. That’s the essence of most forms of trolling–trivializing the thinking and feeling of other participants (not players) in discourse concerning real experience and deeply-held beliefs. It becomes an easily winnable game, a little splash of the right neurotransmitters, but it comes from an experience in which there was never any real risk of losing.

Right now, for example, I’m looking at the residue of a social media scrum that started last night, in which a person suffering from the symptoms of a long-term illness was confronted by a person who sought to undermine and/or minimize their claims. It’s sort of a Greatest Hits version of unsportsmanlike conduct, featuring bad-faith reasoning, purposeful efforts to provoke and harm the opposition, and a few classic tactics (such as the troll deleting a post that effectively undermined their own argument), all for the sake of enjoying the pleasures that come from scoring points. That the troll was obliged to change the rules of engagement more than once to score those points is immaterial–they realized something like a victory, and they can point to any number of public instances of similar victories to validate the feeling.

And in all the ways that matter, at least to me, my overarching sense of what’s involved in play–social, interactive, collaborative play–makes the math, odds, and probabilities more or less incidental. What’s important are mechanics that allow good-faith players to explore and experiment, to have meaningful experiences and earn significant victories in the terms they choose, both as individuals and as a group.


Today marks the annual ritual of either a) posting about resolutions for the coming year, or b) posting about how one is far too cool to post about resolutions for the coming year. I just realized that I failed to post for the whole of December as well (sorry for the belated comment approval, Justin!), so this particular post will have to do triple duty.

December on the whole was decidedly tricksy, for some of the reasons you might expect and some of the reasons you mightn’t. I had to wrap up work on the fall semester, which is about as predictable as things get, and normally I give myself a week or two off in order to recover, to attend to all the stuff I deferred while grading final exams and essays, and to plot out what I’ll need to tackle when the dust has settled. This year, however, I decided to round the corner with virtually no downtime, as the haps at the Abbey are a little friskier than usual.

The first bit of business involved trying to be a more supportive feller for my partner, for she is launching her own enterprise after a couple of decades working for other folks. I am, alas, a pretty limited critter and not all that useful, but she’s primarily needed a sounding board and accessible ear over the past month. All systems, happily, appear to be go: today she’s moving in to her new office space, and this week she’ll take delivery of scads of furniture and office equipment. She’s omnicompetent and possessed of about 50,311 useful skills–the new business will focus primarily on signmaking for accessibility/wayfinding, but she’s a skilled graphic designer, maker, and creative type who has already made inroads in a variety of industries–but right now she’s dancing on the line between excitement and worry. My only real responsibility is helping her to stay on the right side of that line. So far, so good, at least as far as I can tell.

The second bit of business has involved writing a novella, which was not exactly planned (though an outline and scattered bits and bobs have been haunting my desktop for a long time). My compositional process is more than a little involved, but I’ve managed to formalize and finalize the lion’s share of a first draft. I’ll need to polish things off, drop the manuscript in the hopper, and revise it a week or two later with fresh eyes, but it should be ready to send out into the galaxy by mid-January. And then I can turn to the twenty-odd starter documents that are also littering my desktop: premises, outlines, and fragments of poems and short stories that have been on hold while I focused on putting the novella to bed.

I’m fairly fond of resolutions–any occasion make a fresh start on things, or to see old things in a new way, has value–but I’m not especially good at formulating them or articulating them. This year, however, I think I’ll aspire to work through more projects from start to finish, and to get items off my docket sooner rather than later. The Shawty, my partner, is going to need plenty of support as she works out the kinks of her business, and I think I’ll be better equipped to provide it if my own nogginspace is reasonably clear. So here’s to that, and here’s to you. Thanks for reading, and good luck to you on all the promises you plan to keep in 2023!