Thursday 27 June 2024

A Manifesto on Making Simulating Games

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to a lot of smart people talking about table top role-playing games and the great news is that I think the best podcasts out there are better than anything equivalent in the video or board game space.

But I want to challenge that run counter to a common assumption that games should be fun and game designers should be working towards maximising fun - or at the very least least defend the choices that I’ve made in Sixty Years in Space that make this game less fun. This is a gross simplification - of course - but concentrating on fun misses one of the other things games can do really well, and that’s simulation. I’m going to make a broad claim now, and that claim is table top role playing game designers are missing a huge amount of possible game design space by concentrating on fun rather than simulation; and the strengths of that game design space they’re missing out on are best done by table top role playing games (as opposed to video games or board games).

Argument one: Video games are great at mathematical simulation but terrible at mechanical simulation. What I mean by that is that video games have a limited palette of interactions: a controller, a keyboard and mouse, and perhaps some other (expensive) peripherals. Board games fall in the middle of the spectrum of mechanical simulation, but they come with the expectation that everything that is needed to play the game comes in the box. TTRPGs don’t have this limitation. You can create a TTRPG with any mechanical simulation you want. Dice. Cards. Miniatures. Food. Clothing. Glitter. Your imagination (and the wallets of your target audience) is the limit.

Argument two: Board games are terrible sand boxes because they have to have a limited number of verbs. Each verb in a board game is both a rule and a choice, which exponentially encumbers the player with learning both. Video games are better at allowing more verbs, because the player is able to experiment with the verbs they are given without needing to completely understand them, and in doing so can discover both new intended verbs and new unintended verbs enabled inadvertently by the rules of the game. Table top role playing games have potentially unlimited verbs: again, both the verbs and outcomes are limited by the player’s imagination. This is a double-edged sword: video games encourage creative play in a way that sometimes feels constrained in TTRPGs - more research and development is needed here to let players feel empowered enough to try verbs they haven’t used before and existing verbs in ways they haven’t tried before.

Argument three: Board games are not great at being open-ended. Video games are better: but the economic model of games as a service required to sustain forever games ultimately constrains what kinds of video games can be played forever. TTRPGs can go for as little or as long as you want. Again, all recent innovation in TTRPGs is towards creating games with a beginning a middle and an end; I’ve not seen nearly as much done work done investigating what a TTRPG that could run forever looks like.

Argument four: Video games aren’t great at embodying the actions you perform. I’m sure there’s a better term for what I mean: by “embodying the action” I mean that the physical and verbal actions that the player does and the thoughts the player has are the same as what someone doing what is being simulated would do and be. For instance, disarming a bomb might require reading a manual on how the bomb operates both in the game and in the real world while under a significant time constraint. Board games are better at this, although the mechanical and verb constraints limit what embodiment can be achieved. Table top role playing games can do almost anything here. TTRPG designers should be stealing from LARPs more.

Argument five: Table top role playing games are good at getting the players to think as a character, but for a while drifted away from getting the players to solve problems. Both board games and video games are better at this, but they shouldn’t have to be. And the problems that can be posed by TTRPGs include collaboration and social dynamics that can never be simulated in a board game or video game: for instance, acting as journalists forced to censor the news while working under an authoritarian regime. More TTRPGs should be creating interesting problems for the players to solve while letting role playing appear around the edges.

Argument six: TTRPG game components are transferrable beyond the wildest dreams of any NFT bro. You can literally take a board game and make it part of your TTRPG like I did. Likewise, you can steal the nationalities and ethnicities table from Sixty Years in Space and use it to help generate the background of any early 21st century NPC. The MOSAIC system is a great way to build up simulation subsystems that could be cleanly movable from game to game; but you can pretty much do the same with any map or game supplement.

Argument seven: Game literacy is improving. Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular TTRPG in the world, and no one could call it simple. Other examples: Minecraft. League of Legends. Elden Ring. These are complicated games with weird subsystems (crafting in Minecraft!?!) that players are willing to invest hundreds of hours in to understand. We should be making more TTRPGs where the pay off is worth the time invested. The key is figuring out what that pay off should be.

Argument eight: Table top roleplaying games create more interesting artefacts of play than video games or TTRPGs. Consider which contains more built-up history: a screen shot or a character sheet? I’m no fan of actual plays, but they appear to be persistent and meaningful in a way that game play videos are not. The value of simulation is often in the time invested in producing the outcomes, and these artefacts can provide a valuable trail of the path taken.

Argument nine: Creating worlds through play avoids the “porridge problem” — the issue where procedurally generated places and things blur into an indistinguishable soup of similarity. Even a +1 sword can be interesting in the hands of a player who rolls one short of their target in a key scene, instead of vendor trash. Many things we’d like to simulate will need procedural generation to populate part or all of the spaces in the game and simply limiting the pace at which players can reroll the dice goes a long way towards making each generated space meaningful.

Argument ten: TTRPGs are uniquely didactic. Video games don't require that you must understand their rules enough to be able to implement them. But board games are constrained in that at some point in understanding the rules of the game the simulation falls away and winning the game trumps realism. TTRPGs can always have "realism" trump their rules.