Game Theory, Ideas, and a MUD. Oh my!

RPG and game design book spread

Because you can never have too many RPGs … or game design and game theory books.

This post was inspired by a posting by Orpheus, one of the imms of Burning Post II, a MUD that I play. Orpheus made a posting on Facebook and asked us for our thoughts and opinions. This posting is my reply to their post. I’ve some ideas, but I’ve also got some thoughts I’d like to share that do tie into those ideas.

These thoughts revolve around game design and role-play theory (humor me, please). I share this with you because I think it will help folks better understand what drives my ideas. That being said, I’ll break this answer up into three parts: Theory, Opinion, and Ideas that way if folks don’t want to read my thoughts on theory or my opinions in relation to Orpheus’ post they can easily find my ideas.

There is a theory I’ve worked with for as long as I’ve been meddling around in game design (which has been oh … about 10 years or so) and it is simply this: Game design is experience design, and these experiences are comprised of different interactions. It’s these interactions that serve as the building blocks for the game as a whole.

These interactions are either macro or micro, meaning they can be ones in which affect a large part of those who play the game (ex. the changes wrought from a rule clarification or change to a major rule in the game, such as the new alchemy rules) or just a small subset, be it a single person or a particular group of people (ex. a plot by the mages to become a thorn in the Inquisitor’s side). These interactions also occur on both an in-game and out-of-game level: from ooc banter with each other to in-game conflicts between a character’s goals, desires, and current events to chatting with the imm-staff about an idea. Even a player or staff member’s interaction with their MUD client counts, because that can affect their ability to enjoy and interact with the game.

It’s all these interactions that a person has that builds up into a person’s experience of the game, and this experience of the game is compared with the expectations that are set forth, primarily by the staff in the way of rules and setting information, however players help set expectations too when they provide public opinion (such as a review), about the game. It’s this comparison of what a person experiences versus what they were expecting to experience that helps an individual determine if the game is “good” or “bad.”

Why are these expectations important? These expectations form an integral part of the social contract between the different parties in a game (players vs. staff, staff vs. other staff, players vs. players, etc.). When an expectation isn’t met or violated that social contract becomes broken and our opinion of the game and/or its players and/or staff is changed; in essence how we are viewing the experience we’re getting through the game and those associated with it is changed.

So, how does one design that optimal experience, or rather how does one generate the interactions that lead to that optimal experience? This is where user experience and user interface design come into play. User experience I define as the thoughts, emotions, memories, and feelings we want the game to evoke, in short what kind of experience do we want players to have when they play the game. User interface I define as the rules, methods, processes (character creation being an example), tools (such as a MUD client), codes of conduct, etc. that reinforce or encourage a particular form or style of play or encourage certain thoughts, emotions, memories, and feelings.

The user interface is what all parties interact with during the course of the game, and that interaction leads to the user experience. A more visual way of looking at this would be this:
User Interface —> Interaction —-> User Experience

Interactions are the interface, that point of contact, between the User Interface (rules, methods, processes, code of conduct, tools, etc) and the User Experience (thoughts, emotions, memories, and/or feelings). Interactions are what bridges the gap between the two and helps the User Interface affect and influence the User Experience.

Now that I’ve shared the core of the theory on the game design side I want to share a few thoughts on the role-play theory side.

There have been various theoretical models created in an attempt to better understand RPGs, how they function and how the players within them function, and how the process can be refined in order to improve the gaming experience and produce more useful game products, or in the case of this posting, better game experiences. Understanding these different models can help staff and even players (if they care to take time to understand the theories) understand what may drive an individual’s decision to take part in a particular game, as well as understand the different aspects a game fulfills.

There are three key theories I want to mention here, mostly because they are the most common ones referenced in relation to games such as a MUD, and because they have been around the longest. There are some other theories out there that you can read a summary about over on Wikipedia.

Big Model or Forge Theory
It hypothesizes that roleplaying games are modeled by “The Big Model” with 4 levels: the social contract, exploration, techniques and ephemera, with creative agendas governing the link from social contract to technique. In this theory there are 3 kinds of creative agenda, Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist agendas. It is detailed in the articles “GNS and Other Matter of Role Play Theory,” “System Does Matter,” “Narrativism: Story Now” “Gamism: Step on Up” and “Simulationism: The Right to Dream” by Ron Edwards, at the Forge’s article page. The Big Model grew out of GNS Theory, a variant of the Threefold Model.

Threefold Model
It hypothesizes that any GM decision will be made for the purpose of game, or drama, or simulation. Thus, player preferences, GMing styles, and even RPG rulesets can be characterised as Game-oriented, Drama-oriented or Simulation-oriented, or more usually as somewhere between the three extremes. It is sometimes called GDS theory. Strictly, GDS theory is concerned with players’ social interactions, but it has been extrapolated to direct game design, both in and out of the world of RPGs. A game can be classified according to how strongly it encourages or facilitates players reinforcing behaviors matching each category. Game designers find it useful because it can be used to explain why players play certain games.

GNS Theory
GNS Theory holds that participants in role-playing games reinforce each other’s behaviour towards ends which can be divided into three categories: Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist. Strictly, GNS theory is concerned with players’ social interactions, but it has been extrapolated to direct game design, both in and outside the world of RPGs. A game can be classified according to how strongly it encourages or facilitates players reinforcing behaviours matching each category. Game designers find it useful because it can be used to explain why players play certain games.

If you want to dive deeper into RPG theory I suggest John Kim’s site.

Another newer aspect to role-play theory is the exploration of player motives. The interactions mentioned above in the game design section can be influenced by a player’s motives, or the motives that the staff are currently catering to. Motives are two different, but complementary things:

  • The player desire that drives an individual decision regarding a [game] event – the decision to talk to a certain PC or NPC at a given moment, the decision to sneak into an enemy encampment, the decision to trade wood commodities for silk, the decision to make an alliance, the decision to wear the plum colored shirt instead of the black one (and the decision to have more than one shirt to choose from), the decision of whether or not to attend the event in the first place. Multiple motives can come into play on a single decision.
  • An urge to have certain types of interactions. Players tend to have certain motives that they favor, though they may tune their expectations toward the motives they feel are likely to be satisfied by a given event, based on information they’ve received about the game. If the player feels that there are not enough opportunities to satisfy an urge, or if they feel that a specific opportunity doesn’t turn out well, they may feel that their urge is frustrated.

(Pulled from “Analyzing Player Motives to Inform LARP Design” by Rob McDiarmid, Branches of Play, pp. 3-25, pulled from under Downloads on the left side of the page, freely available)

Conflict is an important part of the interactions that occurs in a game, largely because conflict can be a major driving force for plot and the creation of the interactive narrative, or story that is a role-playing game. For that matter, we as humans seek out conflict and we are driven by it. Without some sort of conflict, nobody would ever get out of bed in the morning. Hunger, love, war, greed, sympathy all comes from conflict. Consequently, in order for a role-playing game (which Burning Post II is), which is built around some form of storytelling, has a need for conflict in order for it to be interesting. That conflict doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, even a small thing such as what a character is considering for breakfast can drive a bit of plot, even if for just a couple of minutes.

When in-game experiences cross over and affect our out-of-game life, or our out-of-game-life crosses over and affects out in-game experiences is when we experience bleed. Not all bleed is bad. Bleed can be positive, but far too often it has a negative effect on a person and their experiences surrounding a particular game. There’s a really good MP3 by Dr. Sarah Lynne Bowman where she talks about bleed and social conflict that you can download and listen to here: (starts around the 40 minute mark). While this particular talk is geared toward LARP, the concepts of bleed and social conflict aren’t exclusive just to LARP, but any style of role-playing game.

In a MUD the imms are advertising, designing, and producing an experience. The game is the vehicle for that experience. It’s the goal of the imms, to make sure that people have the optimal experience; by making sure they are setting clear expectations and providing a way to have meaningful interactions that then build up into that experience, thus leading to an enjoyment of the game. That being said, they can’t please everyone and eventually someone may find that the experiences they’re having aren’t what they are looking for, or really what they wanted in the first place, and thus they should move on to another game.

The imms have set an expectation for us, the players. That expectation is that this is a gritty world and conflict is a frequent reality, and that conflict may end up in a character death.

Conflict is needed, but also keep in mind and be respectful of the other people in the game when you decide to incite something. Please be aware of your character and how they come across and perhaps tone it down here and there depending on who you are role-playing with. If it is folks whom you’ve been role-playing with for some time and people know you and that you enjoy generating that kind of contentious conflict, sure go for it. But for that new player who’s just starting to experience the game and the setting that level of conflict or harshness may be off-putting enough for them to decide the game is no longer fun and worth it. When you design your character work to keep it within the context of the group you will be playing with as well as the theme, and think about other people’s experiences as well as your own.

I like the theme and I don’t feel that should change one iota. The game is a gritty game, and it has its dark sides, which is as it should be. That being said, again, think about other people’s experiences as well as your own. Something that you may feel perfectly comfortable with might be a bit upsetting for another. Of course people also have a responsibility to ask for a fade-to-black or re-routing of RP if something does stray into a too uncomfortable area.

In a game like this permanent character death is a very real option, and I have to agree with Orphy here, if you are going to kill off someone’s character you better have a really good IC reason for it AND that character death should add something to the game. Killing a character should never be done because you’re too lazy to try to think of other options, when other options are available, or because you just don’t like someone or the way they are playing their character. To do so is a cop-out. That being said, I trust that the IMMs won’t allow people to get away with crappy reasons for killing characters. This being the case, be aware of the bleed that may occur when a person’s character is suddenly killed off. Have some ooc chat, make sure they know that it’s nothing against them as a person, and be mindful that they may need to take a bit of time before they create a new character and come back to the game.

There are three ideas I’d like to offer up to the imm staff. These ideas I feel help enhance the game experience by providing other avenues for interaction, including ways for conflict to enter the game, thus helping to spur new plot ideas as well as drive new and existing plot forward.

1. A more tangible game-world
New Yarsith does not exist in a vacuum apart from the rest of the game world. By having the imms toss in tidbits that we’d overhear about the world beyond New Yarsith the in-game accessible parts of the world will feel larger than they really are. What other news and events are going on around the world? What news comes in from Tubori or Davari? Was there a raid on a border outpost that has a particular duchy all a flurry? This will help the world seem larger than it appears to be, given that the game is largely kept to the IC setting of New Yarsith. Obviously depending on a person’s social class and/or guild affiliation would depend on the amount or level of information they get. This doesn’t always have to revolve around a plot, but the ideas may lead to plot depending on how the players pick up the ball and run with it.

2. Interaction between the castes

This idea is for the imms, but also for those players who play members of the upper castes, in particular the nobility. One thing I was taught in a game with a caste system not unlike BurP is the higher up the social ladder you play, the more the responsibility you have to feed RP opportunities down to the lower classes, particularly if the only way those opportunities will occur is if they’re handed out to the lower caste characters. For this to work the imms would feed plot stuff to the nobles who then feed it down the chain. Those players who play nobles, bring some gentry into your service, and gentry bring some freemen into your service. This would give characters from differing castes more of a reason to interact with each other.

And here’s another little tidbit that you may or may not know, it’s called the Rule of Three: If there is an important bit of information that you know NEEDS to get out, you should mention it to three different people at bare minimum.

3. Player input questionnaires
This last suggestion is to take a proactive approach when it comes to getting information about players and the kind of game they are looking for as well as from the players about their PCs (particularly their main PCs). The details about a player’s character(s) may also provide plot seeds for the imms. This could also be used to help encourage the imms to suggest character ties or a reason why two PCs would interact. This can also be helpful when a brand new player is trying to work their first PC into plot and story-lines as it can provide imm-staff a guide to help them understand that new PC as well as that new player. I realize that the nature of a MUD often means that there is high character turn over, however it’s been my experience that in a RPI mud like BurP that when a player is enjoying a particular PC they stick with that PC. These two examples are from a different game I played years ago, and perhaps they will be an inspiration to you.

Whether any of these ideas are going to be practical enough to implement, the imms have the time and energy to implement them, or any other reason can be up for debate. If nothing else I hope that they might help spur the creation of other ideas, even if the original idea won’t be used for whatever reason.

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