On Objective Design

The issue is one of scope.

Role-playing games are a subset of games. For the purposes of this discussion  we are assuming some variant of Dungeons & Dragons. What is important is that it comes in a book with rules which is enough for us to consider it a game instead of play.

One thing that marks Role-Playing Games as different than more straightforward games is that the constraints are fluid. I know this sounds like tedium obviousness 101.

In a recent discussion  Noism's of Monsters and Manuals stated:
 "Different people have different tastes and different groups of people respond in different ways, there are good general rules of thumb that work universally."

That's the baseline for our conversation. If you're wrapped up in the idea that something being objective makes a statement about your personal value or worth, then you have self-esteem issues.

"He's examining and evaluating something I like! Because I have poor esteem and boundries I think that must mean he's evaluating the core of who I am as a person! I had better go to war to defend myself to let everyone know that what I like is immune to categorization and then I can continue to go around and be in denial that in one hundred years after my death no one will ever remember who I am." - The Internet

Playing to Win?


So Magic: The Gathering is an interesting case because in addition to a tight win condition (cause your opponent to have 0 or less life, draw from an empty deck, or resign) it also supports a variety of other sub-goals not tied into that particular win condition, namely Thematic Enjoyment and Card Interaction. (Spike, Timmy, and Johnny)

So, rather then just a well-designed game with a victory state, there are choices that still appeal even though they are less effective at achieving that victory state.

There is no situation in Chess where I would refuse to move a piece that would allow me to win, based on my opinion of the piece. Successful tournament players in Magic also don't use cards that don't help them win. That is the metric for card selection in tournaments "What card will help me win?", It is important to note that not every game of magic is a tournament game.

Taste is irrelevant when the only goal is achieving victory conditions.

Role Playing Game Balance?


Dungeons & Dragons also has a "win condition" that is much more loose than most other games. In the Old School Renaissance that goal is "Acquire Gold" In Modern Dungeons & Dragons it's "Win Fights".

However Dungeons & Dragons is different because it pushes the importance down on those 'win conditions' because play still continues (a 'la Zak's infamous "Dying prevents you from playing the game a certain way.") It also ups the importance of the sub-goals: Exploration, Problem-solving, Drama/Acting*

What this means is that rule changes and systems in Dungeons & Dragons can be objectively comparatively judged based on how well they meet these design metrics.

That is to say that decisions about the value or use of systems can be made without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions.

That is what objective design means. "Do you want to use it?" is surely subjective, but as to how it affects the game? That's a matter of objective design.

*understand that "Drama" does not necessarily mean anything in play, it can also be about the structure of play leading to this upon reflection. There is an implicit 4th category, "Power-gaming" which is solely focused on achieving the win conditions. 

20 comments:

  1. The end is enjoyment. The means to that are defined differently for different people, creating subordinate goals like "immersion", "rules mastery", "storytelling" and so forth. It's legitimate to say that a given procedure or rule helps or does not help a subordinate goal, but to go beyond that and say it's globally good or bad involves a deductive leap - that you think the goal is good or bad.

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    1. Your first two sentences, and the first independent clause are the meaning of the text of the article.

      Nothing I wrote is about global good or badness. That isn't what "objective" means. It's an analysis made without opinion or feeling.

      I mean, that's what I'm saying. If you hear objective and get all defensive, that's because the statement has jack-all to do with how you feel about whichever ruleset is being disscussed.

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  2. Piggybacking on the above comment, there's objectively bad results of some rules, IE, "encourages bad behaviour on the part of a player, that is to say, one player gets to enjoy themselves at the expense of the other players," or, "exposes enough rules math so that one or more players can 'solve' encounters in a way that, if the GM responds to encourage play, encourages the player to accuse the GM of 'cheating'" And if you're having the argument at the table over whether it's even possible for the GM to cheat... well, why are you spending time doing that, rather than playing the game? This is the sort of thing I use the term "objectively bad" to mean.

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  3. An interesting trait of logic is that it is a system that depends on its premises. If you have faulty premises, then you can have flawless logic that reaches absurd conclusions. If the conclusion is wrong, it is not the fault of the logic, but of the premises.

    Let me restate your main point to see if I understand what you are saying. We can be objective in talking about rules, analyzing how well the rule enables the kind of play experience the game designers want to enable, without being distracted by whether that kind of play experience appeals to us or not.

    For example, in Old School Hack a player can use Awesome Points to turn a bad roll into a victory, and get closer to leveling (and gaining power) by doing so. We can talk about how that rule affects game play, and whether it does what it is supposed to do, in an objective way. To do so, we need to leave behind whether we prefer story games with no dice, or hard-scrabble zero-to-hero OSR vulnerability, or how that process would need to be adapted for solo play.

    If I am understanding the post correctly, a shorter summary would be, "The value of a rule is grounded in its context and the goals of its system, not in your personal baggage and preferences. When we talk about a rule, the game's context and goals trump your personal style in evaluating its usefulness."

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    1. To elaborate:

      I can say "4e, by design presents encounters that the players are extremely likely to win. This means that over a game there are few to no moments where the outcome is in doubt and so there is little to no risk of loss. The absence of consequences frequently causes unengaging play" as an objective opinion about design.

      But if you like 4e, you take this critique personally. But here's the thing, it is totally good for the people who just want a prosaic, non-stressful heroic experience!

      One can disscuss game design objectively. It is not a personal attack.

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    2. The absence of consequences frequently causes unengaging play

      This is an empirical point, not a logical point. You need data to support it.

      Also, did you mean to write objective opinion? I'm not sure I understand the meaning of that, unless you are talking about something like survey data (where you can say something like objectively, the majority opinion of my data set, which is a sample selected in the following way...).

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    3. The example off the top of my head typed on my phone is clearly not the most rigorous example.

      This is an empirical point, not a logical point. You need data to support it.

      In general data is great. In the abstract, I can say if I am required to make many choices, and those choices do not affect outcomes that is ipso facto unengaging.

      Did I mean to write "Objective Opinion" where?

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    4. In your comment above my first comment: "as an objective opinion about design."

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    5. Right. I see. Statement works better. Opinion is the word I sort of auto-select in my head to avoid de gustibus non est disputandum.

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    6. 4e, by design presents encounters that the players are extremely likely to win. This means that over a game there are few to no moments where the outcome is in doubt and so there is little to no risk of loss.

      Now, 4E is definitely not my favorite game, but I don't think this is a fair assessment.

      From the 4E DMG, pages 56 and 57:

      You can offer your players a greater challenge or an easier time by setting your encounter level two or three levels higher or one or two levels lower that the party's level.

      It then goes on to say that it is a good idea to vary encounter difficulty.

      That is, it sets the default difficulty on the easy end, and then instructs the DM to craft challenging encounters as well. So it does not "by design" craft encounters with no risk, though it does caution DMs regarding the use of difficult encounters.

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    7. If you read my earlier statement, and then read the following:

      4e DMG, page 56: A standard encounter should challenge a typical group of characters but not overwhelm them. The characters should prevail if they haven’t depleted their daily resources or had a streak of bad luck.

      You'll see that "4e, by design presents encounters that the players are extremely likely to win" is just a factual statement about the rules text.

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    8. I disagree. I think that statement needs to be read with what I quoted, which is that the difficulty should vary. By design, 4E says that there should be some hard combats, which means that there is a risk of loss. Just not for every combat. Also there is much discussion of alternate play styles, which should be considered as part of the core design, at least in my opinion.

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    9. Yes, I see that other text. I don't think it's relevant, because I've played 4e

      A hard combat against a solo monster (700 hit points) wasn't hard in the sense the choices mattered. It was hard in the sense you had to use all your encounters and dailies. That combat took 5 hours, and really, there wasn't a single interesting choice, other than "Don't do this obviously bad thing".

      I mean, maybe somewhere, there's someone playing a version of 4e, where if you follow the guidelines for "Difficulty varying" there are combats which contain interesting choices sometimes, but at least for the first 18 months, a by-the-book "hard" combat, wasn't. It was just tedious.

      In the ephemeral realm of the ideal 4e game, yes, I might agree with you. But the system, as written and designed RAW, does not present encounters that players are likely to use -- even when they are hard.

      I believe that is the whole point of the fourthcore movement. To figure out a mechanical way to make the encounters actually deadly.

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  4. I believe there is another sub-goal which many roleplayers (esp. D&D players) tend to pursue. The "leveling-up" or "optimized character build" game. This is where the player is winning fights, gaining gold, etc. but all of that is simply a means to an end - namely, achieving the next milestone in the character's level ascension. Gaining that extra feat, those additional base attack bonus points, becoming that extra degree closer to the "perfect embodiment of the 'X' class" (whichever class you're currently championing), appears for some players to supplant any other objective. This play incentive appeals to the tinkers of the world, the same mindset that enjoys custom building their one version of Linux from the various packages out there, or the guy who is always customizing his hotrod, and so on. This is a valid reason to play, but does certainly result in a different type of player than other motivators.

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    1. Yes. The win-condition focused player is the fourth implied categorization.

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  5. I would split your theme out into two separate subjects. One: if people criticize something you like, you do not need to take it personally. Two: we can talk about whether RPG rules are effective in meeting their goals as a separate conversation from whether or not we agree with those goals.

    I think when people hear "that entertainment is dumb" what comes through is "people who like that entertainment are dumb." It is reflexive to defend what you love, especially if you feel stung.

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    1. I have two subheadings up there, right?

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    2. I think you mean "Playing to Win" and "Role Playing Game Balance" and that's really not what I'm talking about. I'm not making a criticism, I'm looking to help clarify some of the subtleties of the overall topic of people getting emotionally heated about what can be civil conversations. One point is not taking abstract discussions personally, and the other is accepting that everyone's game objectives are not your own. I do not suggest you do things differently, I just thought about how I'd frame the questions you raise.

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    3. It was a lighthearted response.

      Well, I agree. They are two separate subjects, so I put them under separate headings.

      I've been talking about this for a while, I have some posts on communication, reading what is written, etc. I'm mostly writing them so I can just link them when I have to explain it. These are together, because I'm going to say "Objective design" and first they are going to take it personally, and second they aren't going to understand what I mean.

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