Design = Theory Enacted

May 20, 2006

Cross posted from the Story Games thread, where Thor was asking about putting theory into practice in design.

All of my games are an effort to prove something. I don’t write games that I am already capable of writing when I begin designing. Instead, I come up with a really exciting theory that I’d like to see enacted in roleplaying, something that I don’t know how to do already, and I use the design process as a kind of “proof” attempt, figuring out how to make something work that wasn’t obviously possible before. Whether you view this as a “proof” or just a demonstration of a theory kinda depends on how you’re using the word “theory” (Chris Lehrich has a great article on the multiple meanings of “theory” and their applicability to roleplaying, but I can’t find it right now).

Often times, the bits of theory I try to prove are derrived from the reading I’m currently doing, whether it’s in small group communication theory or the development of arthouse wuxia as a cinematic genre. But they’re usually sparked by something outside roleplaying (or at least comes from another branch of roleplaying, like interactive fiction or collaborative fiction writing). For example, my more recent projects set out to demonstrate the following:

Heavenly Kingdoms (Game Chef 2005, finished late)
– players create “what happens” simply by improvizing upon and remixing a fixed text
– players have a sense of character that’s not formalized in any mechanical way

Untitled Arthouse Wuxia Game (planned for Push vol 1, unfinished)
– frame scenes on the super-micro level, image by image, shot by shot
– create inter-character conflict without having it be driven by inter-player conflict
– do a martial art game that doesn’t require people to geek out over the mechanics

Lions on the Precipice (my Dogs remix, unfinished)
– have a multiple-PC game where the main characters never meet
– structure play so that different characters’ actions comment on each other thematically

Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan (lesbianstripperninja, Jan 2006)
– further explanation of semi-mechanical characterization
– have different characters play by different rules
– structure player input as a way to guide “what happens”

Waiting for the Queen/Tea at Midnight (Push vol 1)
– enable interactive fiction (“get lamp”) style play in tabletop
– more semi-mechanical characterization, but also allowing for freeform characterization
– focus on the difference between mechanically supported/unsupported play
– a different approach to structuring player input

When The Forms Exhaust Their Variety (Game Chef 2006, unfinished)
– move away from traditional narrative structure
– do tabletop play that’s not really “storytelling,” more like larp multiplicity
– mechanically require player co-dependency
– be as weird and out-there as possible 🙂

The Good Ship Revenge (current project, unfinished)
– handle a variable number of players in a fixed-character game
– use a collaborative fiction (online freeform) style narrative authority scheme
– frame scenes at a more micro level, with individual images (“shots”), like a movie
– create a short game that supports play of variable length

Untitled Dolphin Game (upcoming Summer Fun Game Chef 2006)
– question traditional assumptions about the communication and content of play
– be as weird and out-there as possible 🙂

Also, I think I learn as much (or more) from games I never finish as those that I do. Even failed or abandoned projects are a chance to learn a lot. Especially when things you couldn’t get to work in some projects resurface and actually work in later projects.

One Response to “Design = Theory Enacted”


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