Checklists as Play

The element of the Checklist Manifesto that really grabbed my attention in regards to RPGs was what wasn’t included in them. A well designed checklist assumes that you already know how to do your job (fly a plane, remove an appendix, whatever) and does not tell you how to do that. Instead it acts as a reminder for the little things that are more work to keep in mind than not.

That assumption of competence is an incredibly rich idea, and when applied to RPGs it raises and interesting question regarding rules. If rules were to provide the same sort of structure – assuming you know what you’re doing and just providing some support fo rthe stuff that’s a pain to keep in mind – then it really upends the cart in terms of how to judge certain games. It’s an argument for why the parts left out of a design are more essential than may be assumed. We’re not talking about a fruitful void here, we’re talking about lots of little voids, about the very weave of the game being intentionally more there than not.

Compare two really excellent games: D&D 4e and Mouseguard. [1] Both of them have very cleanly established rules for what and how to do things, but there are profound differences in how those things are structured. D&D is designed to provide all the tools you need to handle a situation, but the framework that surrounds that situations (how it ends up intersecting with play). There are guidelines and advice, sure, but it’s all a bit mushy until the fight starts. In contrast, Mouseguard is all structure, all the time – there’s a framework that surrounds everything at every level of play.

Viewed as checklists, I would say that 4e’s checkboxes are “further apart” than Mouseguard. That is to say, there are a lot more assumptions in 4e’s structure than there are in Mouseguard. This is not to say Mouseguard leaves no room to color outside the lines – it absolutely does – but the differing level of structure can make it easy for a player to be more comfortable with one or the other depending upon how much structure they’re looking for. Sometimes you want a lot of structure, because it gives you a solid architecture to build on. Sometimes you want just enough structure to give you more freedom than you’d have without it. Sometimes you’ll fall somewhere else on this particular axis, but wherever it is that you fall, stop and think about how that structure is impacting you, and whether it’s building walls to keep you safe or keep you trapped.

1 – Yes, they are excellent games.

3 thoughts on “Checklists as Play

  1. Cinderella Man

    So carrying it back to OD&D the checkboxes would be even further apart when compared to both games? Should designers strive for a more even distribution of checkboxes or is that a style thing?

    I would imagine that the flow of Mouseguard (only read it, not played yet) is smoother than 4e. Is that would the rules should do? And how to avoid rules (checkbox) bloat?

    These are all the questions that popped into my mind after reading your post. Thanks for presenting another perspective for viewing RPGs.

  2. Rob Donoghue

    @Cin They’re good questions, and I think they benefit from no one answer. The boxes can absolutely be farther apart, but that demands the table fill in more and more. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends a lot upon what the table is comfortable with. On some level I suspect it’s a manifestation of the larger question of the passionate love/hate relationship between constraints and creativity.

  3. Reverance Pavane

    Actually I’d say that there are many different checklists, rather than one checklist for a game. In 4th Ed you have very well designed and tight-knit checklists for handling combat. Outside of this well-defined combat it’s the absence of checklists that cause problems in the game.

    In Mouseguard you basically have a single system that can be applied to any situation. However to make things easier, they’ve actually adapted the system to provide a checklist for almost every situation they can think of you encountering.

    One thing about checklists which may have an interesting effect when you look at gaming is the ritual nature of them. Not just in how they are performed (such as the challenge/response of the pre-flight cockpit checks on heavy commercial), but in the fact that performing the checklist becomes such a practised motion of the acolyte, that when things aren’t as they seem, or the checklist is not performed, it feels … wrong.


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