Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Objectives in Play

This kinda' comes hard on the heels of my earlier post about my sudden "re-disenchantment" with Rifts. Folks who have been reading this blog for awhile (or at least reading my earlier posts) know I have a bit of interest in game design (specifically RPG), and that I went so far as to pen my own "first axiom" of game design.

Welp, I've got another one for ya'; call it Axiom #2:

Good game design requires rules that set clear objectives for players.

Now, as usual when I say "players" I refer to everyone sitting around the table...whether one is taking the role of the DM/GM or a character-wielding participant makes no nevermind to me. Everyone present is "playing the game;" thus, all are players.

So what is an "objective" anyway?

Well it's not the usual diatribe found in most RPG's introductions, "the objective of the game is to have FUN!" As my wife might quip: barf.

OF COURSE we are all playing the game with the hope that play will be fun! Hell, it's a game after all! Most of us aren't getting money or sex for it, so it better be fun.

That is, there is NO NEED TO SAY that "fun" is an objective. That's what we call "a given."

When I say "objective" I mean that there is an OBJECT of play. Something one is to DO, besides simply sit around gabbing and occasionally rolling a set of dice. But there is a point to play, aside from the "meta-goal" of enjoying your gaming group's company and occasional pizza feed.

If there is no objective to play than you might as well be sitting around in an acid circle...or a collaborative writing session...or a circle jerk. But you ain't playing a game.

Games have objectives. Objectives provide direction. Direction allows action. Without action the game is simply talking about how "kewl" your guy is...whether that guy is a heroic PC or antagonist NPC doesn't matter. Likewise "talking about" your guy may involve actual talking about his/her various traits...OR it might be showing what the character can do (for example, in a game's combat system). Regardless, it's still a wank-fest.

Objectives may be distinct between the different types of participants, but they should still be present and should be clearly stated within the text of the game...well, at least in a game with good design. If not, well...it leads to problems. And fairly shoddy role-playing in my opinion.

Most RPGs that I consider to be of the "old school" variety, have fairly specific objectives in game play, and specific methods of measuring whether or not those objectives are being met ("points"). But many of the newer indie games also have clearly stated goals and objectives of play.

[by the way, I'm still mulling the idea of "objective" versus "expectations." Right now, they seem to be very distinct in my mind: an EXPECTATION would be a type of in-game behavior and would appear to be difficult to teach through text alone, save perhaps with several examples of play. But there's a fuzzy line between "expected behavior" and pursuit of objectives, as that itself is a type of behavior]

Some examples of games with clear objectives (here I will separate participants into "GM" and "players"):

Dungeons and Dragons: At the basic level has very clear objectives in play. The DM's objective is to create an adventure scenario that is stocked with both risk and reward (monsters, traps, and treasure) and then fairly adjudicate the outcome of the exploration. The players' objective is to gain as much reward as possible while surviving the risk. Sometimes, there are additional secondary objectives (free prisoners, defeat a specific foe, recover a specific treasure).

Sorcerer: An indie-game designed at facilitating "story now," this game also has clear in-game objectives. The players create characters that each possess a "kicker," an issue of tantamount importance to both the player AND character. The in-game objective is to push the narrative in such a way that the kicker is resolved. The GM's role is to weave the characters together within a loose plot using techniques like relationship mapping. In-play the GM's objective is to drive the plot by introducing "bangs" - decision points that force player action and that (by making choices) allow premise to be addressed and defined within play.

Call of Cthulhu: The Keeper's objective is to create a horror mystery that will engross the player characters. The player's objectives are to solve said mystery (survival and retention of sanity being optional).

InSpectres: The GM's objective is to keep the story coherent while introducing elements that allow the players to take action and "collect dice." The player's objective is to solve the (randomly generated) mystery/job by succeeding at tasks and collecting dice.

In none of these games are there questions about "how is this game supposed to be played," or more specifically "what the hell do we do once we get to the table." The objectives provide direction and the direction facilitates action. Left bereft of objective, play stagnates, degenerates, or simply doesn't "go anywhere."

That's poor game design, in my opinion.


  1. You have an excellent point.


    This breaks down quickly if you're talking about generic, or at least pseudo-generic, RPG systems. I wouldn't say GURPS is a poorly designed game because it doesn't give a clear "objective" for what you do when you get to the table.

    But, I do believe that it's important to provide options for objectives in generic RPG design. For example, in working on my T&B RPG last night, I was writing about campaigns and long-term travel. A good chunk of the section was discussing how to handle travel with regards to the rules if your "objective" is to consider the travel an integral part of the adventuring experience, or do you want to just "Indiana Jones" it and simply run your finger along the route on the map showing your players moving from point A to point B over the course of a month. Both methods are perfectly viable, but it depends on the "objective" the players have in mind; do you consider the journey to be part of the destination? Or do you just want to get there and start kicking butt already?

    So I'd say that a game doesn't necessarily need to provide an objective so much as it needs to facilitate the addressing of the objectives.

  2. Actually, I DO think GURPS is a poorly designed game, even if it has an elgant (which is debateable) system. As a game, it doesn't stand alone, at least as far as I remember.

    But, hey...I don't have a copy of it in front of me and without the text I really cannot judge. For all I know, Mr. Jackson does a great job of laying out objectives besides "it's your game, have fun." Which to me is kind of like saying, "I'm done and now I've got your money...go F yourself!" Cheerfully, of course, with a big, sloppy grin.

    And while I will have to mull over your idea that FACILITATING objective is more important, my gut reaction is: no. Because objectives need to be clearly stated before a system can facilitate ANYTHING. It doesn't matter that Palladium works for K.S.'s personal gaming group and facilitates HIS objectives...I've never played with him so I have no idea what the hell those are! And if you don't tell me, then I'm groping in the dark and it doesn't matter how well it facilitates jack or shit.

    Now, if you don't plan on publishing your own RPG for anyone but your immediate game group, it's a non-issue. Making an assumption that "everyone plays the same as I do" is a sure sign of flawed game design.

    In my opinion.
    ; )

  3. So by that reasoning, there is no such thing as a well-designed generic RPG, because a generic RPG is, by definition, generic and unresonsive to a lot of what you're talking about.

    By saying "the objective of this game is X", you're de facto saying "if X isn't your objective, don't play this game". That's fine if what you want your game to be is a niche product designed for a very specific audience, but it also means that the only good games are those that cater to niche "objectives".

    And that means, in a practical sense, that I'd have to have a specific game for every genere/setting/tone/objective-based play style, rather than one or two generic games that take care of what I need, and let me handle the rest.

    If that's what you want - a separate game for everything you want to do - then that works...for you. There are a lot of people (and I'm not necessarily one of them) who find this the antithesis of how they like to handle RPG systems.

  4. "And that means, in a practical sense, that I'd have to have a specific game for every genere/setting/tone/objective-based play style, rather than one or two generic games that take care of what I need, and let me handle the rest."

    Yeah, that may be what I'm saying. [and, boy, I'm glad I waited till today to get back to this comment string...had to take a few deep breaths after yesterday's diatribe!]

    I will probably have to make a post (perhaps today) about generic/universal RPG systems. I don't own many and I don't play 'em in general. There are a couple reasons for this:

    - ON PRINCIPLE, I feel that "system does matter." A game should have a system that meets the needs of players in-play and as designed (i.e. as the designer intends). I don't believe in "one system to rule them all;" one of my first big disenchantments with D20 was its attempt to do games other than D&D in the same way; I found it very non-conducive to, say, Star Wars or Gamma World. Thank god they didn't try to make D20 Boot Hill...how dumb would that have been.
    - I like my games to be ABOUT something, not simply an engine or chassis for role-playing, which is how many universal systems feel (to me). Sometimes they're nice...I found the best way to play Top Secret by email was to convert it to the Story Engine system...but in general, I'm not about imposing my will (i.e. my favorite generic system) on someone else's cool setting/game
    - I enjoy playing different games and supporting different game designers; it feels like I'm supporting the hobby itself. Another "principle" thing; people who don't want to learn more than one system are, frankly, a little lazy (IMO).
    - I believe different games are different games. Monopoly is not the same thing as Pictionary, nor D&D...and D&D is not the same thing as Gamma World. Games may fall into the genre of "board game" or "RPG" but not all RPGs are alike...nor should they be.

    ANYway...let me say I am NOT an expert on GURPS but I intend to do a little research on it today, if I have a chance and will post more later. I'm not sure that it is impossible THEORETICALLY for a universal system to have objectives, and perhaps GURPS does.

    For example, BESM is considered a universal system and it has fairly clear expectations of what it wishes to accomplish (mimicking Japanimation), and I'd guess it has specific in-game objectives regarding this for its participants (players and GM alike)...but I don't have the text in front of me at the moment. I'll be sure to consult it before writing my "generic system" post.

  5. First, I'll state that I'm not a huge fan of generic systems myself. I don't run GURPS or FUDGE or some other universal "framework" RPG, and it is in part for reasons you describe. For a look at my longer opinion on this here's an article I wrote about a year and a half ago.

    That having been said, I still strongly disagree that a generic system is "poorly designed" because it doesn't do what you're looking for. Almost by definition, a generic/universal RPG is a blank slate for you to create from, and as such wouldn't have an "objective" beyond being as malleable as possible with the least amount of effort. That is the criteria I judge a generic RPG's quality of design by, and I think it is a strikingly different set of criteria from what you are talking about.

    What I think you are getting at is whether or not an RPG meets certain expectations of play and expresses them effectively. For example, if I was writing a "Conan RPG", I'd have failed if it was a conan RPG that pretty much just played like any other vanilla fantasy RPG with "conan" and "hyboria" slapped on it here and there. If a game is to be about X, then it should reflect X in every aspect of it's design and reinforce a play style that emphasizes X at the gaming table.

    So really I think saying "GURPS is badly designed" because it doesn't reinforce certain game-specific objectives in play is unfair; but what you certainly could say is that GURPS doesn't do a good job of allowing someone to create a game about X that feels and plays differently than a game about Y. Someone might argue this point, but I think it is certainly a more valid argument.

  6. I believe you may be missing my point.

    I am separating "system" from "game" in this instance. GURPS (or FUDGE I suppose) may be well designed, elegant, consistent systems for an RPG...that is, it may mechanically model "how things get done in play" very well. That's a fine system, deserving of accolades.

    Doesn't make it a good GAME. My axiom applies to "game design," NOT "system design." A game is more than its system. For that matter, it's more than its setting, and it's more than its chargen or its IP base.

    My axiom states "GOOD GAME DESIGN requires..." GURPS or another elegant universal system requires something more than its nuts and bolts to be considered "good GAME design." In my book anyway.

  7. I see what you mean. In this case, however, I guess the problem (if it is indeed a problem) is that the axiom then isn't really applicable with regards to generic RPGs, period. I say this because by your definition (and I tend to agree somewhat with your definition), a universal system isn't a "game" at all.

    Of course, if you look at it that way, a slippery slope begins to form. Is D&D a "game", then? It lacks a default setting. It can be played using a number of different campaign styles. Really, any RPG that doesn't have an inherent setting associated with it may fail your criteria for what a "game" is.

    So if you're referring to "good game design", I think you need to define what a "game" means to you. Because if you consider something like GURPS (considering that GURPS does have a whole pile of setting books associated with it) to not be a "game" (and again, I don't necessarily disagree with you), I could easily say that core D&D or AD&D isn't a "game", either, while something like Traveller or Barbarians of Lemuria or Heavy Gear would be a "game".

  8. Oh, I'd say it's pretty clear that GURPS (and D&D for that matter) is a game...it is marketed as such and meant to be played as a game. It's just not the best designed game (maybe...I'll dissect it more in the future).

    My axioms are meant to be applied to game design anyway; I just happen to use them for critique/judgement as a secondary application (or to point up examples of slick game design versus the non-slick).

    Re: setting in RPGs. Setting has little to do with good game design; it might be desirable to some players and undesirable to others. Objectives of play ARE necessary to a game, and are (probably) ALWAYS present...but in poor game design they are not explicitly or clearly stated.