Representation and Understanding

The question of “What is the absolute least game necessary?” is a really interesting one to me, since the answer is a sort of progression.

The first answer is a mechanical one, and the answer is something like Risus, where everything boils down to a simple mechanical expression of an idea. The second answer is to go “no game!”, and just tell stories, but that gets it interesting wrong. “No game” only works on top of a set of assumptions, and the only questions is whether those assumptions are spoken or unspoken.

These assumptions might affect the form of activity (no cancellation, yes and, take turns) or it might involve assumptions about the content of the story (this is a Superman story, and we both know how Superman works). Ideally, it’s a bit of both.

That latter part is fascinating to consider, but difficult to discuss. If you’re a Superman nerd, then you may have already asked yourself “but which Superman?”. And that’s a valid question – if you’re thinking Man of Steel and I’m thinking Bruce Timm, then our shared understanding is rather lacking in understanding.

Thinking about it this way has undercut my understanding of why we have mechanics. Historically, I have thought as mechanics as primarily representational, and secondarily communication. To put that in concrete terms, we give superman a Strength stat of, say, 100. 100 strength means, say, “able to lift a skyscraper”. That 100 strength represents a specific value, and I can then use that to determine other relative values – If Superman has a 100 Strength, then Aquaman has a 50 strength, and can throw a car.[1]

This representation becomes value when I think of a new character and I think to myself “he can throw a truck, so he’s stronger than Aquaman, but not as Strong as Superman, let’s say Strength 60”. But then it gets taken in a very different direction when we invert the logic, and say “ok, I have spent 60 points on strength – how strong does that make me?”

If we go in the other direction, the reason we give Superman a 100 Strength is so that you can I can have a discussion as to how strong Superman is, and by assigning a value, we (hopefully) bring our understanding in line. Now, when we tell this story about Superman, we’re on the same page. In this context, the purpose of system is to reach understanding.

Now, the facile thing to say here would be to say “System doesn’t matter, understanding matters” but that would be very short sighted. There is a lot more to game design than just the representational slice, and system does lots of other things.

But if understanding is a conscious priority, it changes the role of system. It also lays bare a lot of the technical elements at work when someone says that a good GM is less reliant on system – in this particular context, a good GM is one who has a refined understanding of her player’s perspective and direction.

All of which comes back to the question of the least amount of game necessary. If the GM is (successfully) filling in the understanding step, then you may well need no further game. But that also may make you all more enthusiastic to engage what system you use because you can see it clearly. That is, you seek the system that can improve things for your great GM. Like a great craftsman, the GM doesn’t need all the fancy tools to do the work, but given the choice, the tools she will use are the best ones (for her).

Practically, this is on my mind as I have been thinking about whether or not dice modifiers are necessary at all. Imagine a system where you roll a single df. On a + things go well, on a 0 they go ok, on a – they go poorly.[2] Let’s say we have a game with Superman and Batman. If everyone involved has a shared understanding, then we don’t need to give them Strength stats – Superman is stronger, and even if he rolls poorly, that remains true. Batman is never going to smash a mountain with his fist, no matter who well he rolls. It is only a lack of understanding that demands stats.

So the question is, of course, how else to come to understanding?

1. Technically, I want two or three values to get that relative value. Suppose Supes has that 100 strength and a normal person has a “1”. That suggests a different scheme than if a normal person has a “10”. It’s hard to understand a progression from a single point, but that’s a little tangential.  ↩
2. Perhaps not by coincidence, Fred and I have both been experimenting with games with our very young children that are in this general space.  ↩

11 thoughts on “Representation and Understanding”

1. Emily Dresner

One the big “ah ha!” moments I had recently was realizing that stats are not relative to an absolute, they are relative to each other. To make things bigger or stronger, we add more strata between the stats to magnify the relative nature of stats.

Let’s say we have a 6 point scale for strength and we decide Superman is a 6 and Batman is a 2. Relative to each other, Superman is 3x stronger than Batman. This might not be true; Superman might be 10x stronger than Batman. We decide the 6 point scale doesn’t work any more. We decide we need a 10 point scale, and to make Superman 10x stronger than Batman, Superman needs to be a 10 and Batman a 1. Now how do we fit in civilians? Superman is properly scaled to Batman but Batman is no longer scaled to his environment because perhaps relative to his environment, Batman is 10x strong than the average dude. So we get a scale:

100 – Superman
10 – Batman
1 – Civilian

But because d100 systems kind of suck we will give up on this and make them relative to one another with feats or stunts or some other way to differentiate them as different in relative terms to each other. Then we can make NPCs different relative to the PCs and the environment different relative to the NPCs and so on and so forth.

A minimal game system needs to implement this mechanic to be successful. The core mechanic is how I am different than you on a scale we both agree and to what magnitude. It really needs exactly one of these measuring sticks so everyone can make that agreement and with enough differentiation to make the system work.

1. Roger

Hmmm. I think the question you’re attacking is “So what does System actually DO anyways” and, yes, one of the answers to that question is “Help everyone at the table communicate a bit more clearly and understand each other better than they would without their System.” But, of course, there are other answers, and I think it’s driven by a related question: “What do people not do very well that System could help them with?” Everyone has their pet answer for this, I think; the one that seems most interesting to me at the moment is “Provide adversity for the characters they’re advocating”, but it’s about as personal a question as there is in game design.

2. Bill

Kids are great for that. For a long time I’ve done Rock-Paper-Scissors games with my seven year old son where a win means you assume narrative control for an arbitrary amount of time. Lately though, he’s seen the pictures of minis moving about on grids and he wants a part of that.

3. Kevin Matheny

I like Amber’s way of handling attributes, where the points spent are less important than the ranking system. Whether you spent 15 or 50 points on it, if you’re First in Warfare, you win all the fights. It requires a collaborative process of establishing the ranking system, and thus doesn’t scale out well – you couldn’t do something like the Pathfinder Society with this kind of system – but it works well for small groups. I think of it as a relative scale rather than an absolute one, because the distance between ranks isn’t important when comparing them. It is important when advancing characters, but that’s an entirely different thing.

How would you model the Hulk in your system? Something like a power called “Hulk is the strongest one there is” that adds to his Strength attribute as needed, perhaps?

4. John

Have you looked at the old DC Heroes RPG (later revamped as a 3rd party non-licensed game Blood of Heroes)? The stats there, particularly strength, went up exponentially. So a normal, fit person has a strength of 2 (max lift of 200 lbs), and Batman has a strength of 4, and is 4 times stronger than an average person. Superman has a strength of 25, so is over 2,000,000 times as strong as Batman.

Silver Age Superman had a strength of 50. . .

1. Rob Donoghue Post author

I have! That was the example in my mind of why you can’t understand a scale from just one point.

1. John

Very true, any arbitrary scale to measure even a quantifiable stat, like strength, will need an explicit description of how it works. DCH works well in that, once you understand the basis, it’s pretty easy to form a rough estimate of the capability of any given score intuitively.
I suppose, when you know the genre of the game, the stats should have a similar number spread for players to intuitively understand. In D&D a regular character may have a strength running from 3 to 18 or so, and the mechanics explain that one end is roughly small child level and the other is Olympic weightlifter. But in a superhero game, that same spread can cover normal person to tank-smasher.
I think it helps to have the more compressed scales like that, too wide a spread even in a superhero genre and the increments become just a little less exciting or important.

5. Goken

What’s this about experimenting with games for young kids?? Tell me more! My four year old is able to engage with some simple board games like castle panic but I have yet to find a way to play an rpg with him.

6. Kenny 'the Cabbage' Norris

I would say that the least system needed is one that a) minimize confusions and b) has as much ‘crunch’ as you want / need.

For some GURPS is the minimum system needed and only with some of the extra rules bolted to it. Others need little more than a Rock, Paper, Scissors rule and an understanding of the character.

7. Robert

“The question of “What is the absolute least game necessary?” is a really interesting one to me, since the answer is a sort of progression.”

That’s an interesting philosophical question. A related question might be “Is less game better?” or “When is more game better than less game?”

Minimalism is a prominent feature of many forms of “high culture” in the modern era. In poetry, film, painting, etc., there is a strong minimalist current. Sometimes (and I don’t think you’re implying this, but people do often argue this) simplicity is presented as an advance over older, more elaborate forms. But this is a stylistic choice and not an objective virtue. Big, sprawling novels like The Mill on the Floss aren’t inferior to tight understated masterpieces like The Old Man and the Sea./i> Take Shakespeare, for example. There is nothing “least” about any of his plays — he never has four subplots where he can cram in five. And yet he’s done all right for himself.

Equally, I think RPGs can be great whether they make a virtue of “least” or whether they are elaborate and baroque in tendency. So the question of how lean you can go is, as you say, an interesting question that gets to the fundamentals of what a game is and how it works, but the question of how lean you should go is really a question about the artist/designer’s personal voice and what they have the skill to pull off.

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