Explicit Procedures and the Permission to Decide

January 13, 2012

One of the projects that I’ve been doing volunteer consulting on lately, as part of the new plan for Corvid Sun, is actually a previously planned collaboration with two old friends: They Became Flesh with Elizabeth and Shreyas. These thoughts came out of our discussion today—pretty basic and I’m surely not the first to say this kind of thing, but it’s still important.

If there are sections of your game that can be effectively captured with really explicit procedures, then, by all means, write them out that way. There are enough emergent properties inherent in play — from the other players, the fictional situation, etc. — that you don’t need folks to have to make up large swaths of “how to play your game.” Tell them WHEN to do WHAT and HOW, step by step, with just the contextual info they need to make it happen.

However, there are plenty of really important and meaningful aspects of play that can’t be effectively captured that way, especially if your game is intended to have a meaningful emotional impact on those playing. And sometimes the mechanical feel of the game demands more judgment calls than strict procedures.

But even in those cases, I think it works best if the text explicitly empowers the players to make those judgment calls instead of abandoning them to decide things for themselves, if that makes sense. When texts disclaim responsibility or say “just wing it!”, they feel incomplete, like the designers have copped-out or doesn’t really have any clue what the players should do. But when texts say, “examine the situation from this perspective and make a reasonable decision,” they feel empowering and liberating. Then the players know that they have some leeway in this area and can safely decide things to the best of their ability without being too worried about making the wrong decision.

Practically, from the perspective of what the players do at the table, it can be nearly the same thing, but games in the latter mode feel more supportive, like they’re on the side of the players (and thus, in my experience, get played more often).

These two styles work really well when combined together. When the things that need to be done in an exact way are explained very explicitly, the players can do them (surprise!) and know that it’s more or less what the designer intended. And then they feel more confident when the designer says, “there’s some leeway here, make a judgment call,” because they’re operating within a bounded space between explicit procedures.

But if everything is somewhat muddy, if it’s not clear when you should follow procedures exactly (or if there even are standard procedures) and when you should decide for yourself (and how to do that), then you’ve left the players to assemble their own game out of content you’ve haphazardly thrown at them. Some of them will still have a ton of fun, probably, since I’m sure many of your ideas are cool and they’re smart, creative people. But that’s really more to their credit than to yours, as a designer, since there’s no way for their fun experience to be consistently replicated by other folks.

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