A Shift in My Mental Model

September 16, 2009

Over on Structured Freedom, Emily asked:

What gives a game with no mechanical resolution that kick? What makes a scene crackle with energy and tension, or sit there like a limp noodle?

In the Mothers, there is one “perfect mother” in the new mothers’ support group. The other mothers have to be willing to go for the throat to get the game to really click.

And I said:

Are these things that can be explained as being part of the core guidelines for playing the game (i.e. “pick one player to be the Perfect Mother…”) or are you seeing them more as emergent properties that are harder to ensure, aside from setting up spaces in which they will likely occur (i.e. “inevitably, one or more players will aspire to be the Perfect Mother…”)?

I’ve been thinking about both of these a great deal when working on the new draft of Geiger Counter, even though it isn’t structured freeform. My approach to Geiger has definitely been strongly informed by my thinking about structuring play in general, in the sense that there are a lot of “soft guidelines” and suggestions in the rules that aren’t hard-coded into resolution. And there are many other things that are emergent that I’m not even sure whether / how to talk about. I don’t think Geiger is different than many other games in this regard actually, which is why — more recently — I’ve found it harder to talk about structured freeform as a separate thing from other styles of play, which I see more and more as heavily intertwined. You know that article on the Forge where Erick Wujcik says “You’re playing diceless all the times when you don’t roll dice.” I think structured freeform is like that too — it’s what you’re doing when you’re not engaging with formal resolution mechanics.

Like, to flip your question around, what is it about games WITH mechanical resolution that give them that kick? You know how Dogs in the Vineyard really starts getting teeth when one or more Dogs take a strong stand on an issue that the other Dogs disagree with (“That guy deserves to die. I shoot him.” / “What? Are you insane?!! I totally stop you!”)? The game doesn’t tell you that moral conflicts within the party are awesome, but they are.

I honestly think there’s a whole bunch of interesting structures that are put into place by a variety of games, from Dogs to D&D, but often times we — following players and designers before us — ignore these broader structures and focus on resolution. Like, take Initiations in Dogs. Totally a valuable and interesting structure: “Say what you want to accomplish during training and then play out that scene.” Even without any resolution mechanics, that would be awesome.

In reality, designing structured freeform games is honestly not that different from other kinds of game design work because designing structures that create exciting or valuable play experiences is a skill you should be constantly working to improve if you want to design good games. In fact, I think design work that focuses on resolution more than interesting structures is almost always less interesting. The games that you really like, your favorite games, most likely rock the house because they have a core of interesting structures that would hold your interest even without formal resolution mechanics.

Or, to be completely frank… my thinking about structured freeform has finally moved from the “I’m/we’re doing something really different” phase to the “we’re all ultimately doing the same thing” phase. That’s a pretty standard progression in theoretical exploration, I think (or sometimes people go the opposite direction, from assuming sameness to assuming utter cacophony). Hopefully that means I can eventually move to being aware of nuances in these kinds of techniques and not focus so much on broad similarities and differences.

4 Responses to “A Shift in My Mental Model”


  1. I absolutely agree. And since we’re quoting ourselves, here’s what I said on anyway a couple of months back:

    I think that we (or maybe just I) have put so much emphasis on resolution mechanics in the past few years, while there are so many structuring mechanics that can be equally as important (like the aforementioned in PTA, or Futures in Ribbon Drive).

    So yes. What Emily said about Cues on Fair Game, that’s one of those approaches to structures that works for me.


    • See, I think I’m coming at it from the opposite direction, compared to you.

      I’ve put a lot of emphasis on structured elements in the past few years (since 2005 or so) and am only starting to realize how many of those already exist in games that ALSO have formal resolution mechanics. I had kinda given up on resolution-based games as being “old thinking” or whatever, but recently enjoying Mouse Guard and John Harper’s hacks has made me value the structures in resolution-based games.

      It’s fun to meet in the middle, though!

  2. timfire Says:

    Jonathon, we really should talk more.

    These are the types of issues I’ve been thinking about and wanting to explore more, since, well… ’06 or so when I wrote that article on improvisation for Push v.2.


    • Definitely. One of these days I should just drop all the Push 2 articles in the formatting for Push 1 and just release it all as a free PDF, with minimal editing. There was a lot of good stuff there, even if it’s 3 years old now.


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