[Imagine] Using my own theory to create it

edited April 2017 in Story Games
Over the last two years, I have written a lot about my thoughts and theories about what engages us in roleplaying games in a thread called We Know So Little of Our Hobby. I feel that, so far, it has only been airy words and that I need to make these concrete through a game.

Then Imagine was born.

This game is a child of the collective knowledge of that I gathered during last years when I tried to reach beyond our own hobby to learn more about game design and why and how people invest in a game. It's a game that slaughters many of the sacred cows in roleplaying games and I feel I need to find a new way of writing roleplaying games so games like this can exist. It's a game I couldn't have written only five years ago, when I published my first game. It's a game that I, at that time, would even question to be a roleplaying game. Nay, even a "game".

No conflict ♦ No game master ♦ No dice or other means that provides random outcomes ♦ No prep ♦ No tangible rewards ♦ No acting-in-character ♦ No fantastic elements ♦ No campaign ♦ No mechanical improvements ♦ No 200+ pages to read only to be able to play the game

I'm not saying that roleplaying games shouldn't have these, but I will show how one can create a game that challenges what people normally think are fundamental parts of a roleplaying game. Some, like tangible rewards and dice, are even harmful game design when used wrongly. And A LOT of roleplaying games use these wrongly. A lot of them, even "indie games".


These topics are brief summaries of wider aspects and each post got links for anyone interested to get a deeper understanding of how I came to these conclusions.


  • edited November 2014


    If you want to refute, ask about something, or discuss any content in this thread, please start a meta-thread. I will link to that thread in this post and add links to posts that are being discussed in that meta-thread.
  • edited November 2014

    The Importance of Conveying ONE Playstyle

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    WHY are We Playing?
    Focused Play = Total Fun
    Different WHYs in the Same Game Creates Confusion
    Happiness in Action, part two

    We got five different reasons of WHY we play a game: Sensation, Exploration, Destruction, Expression, and Competition. These are always present but in various degrees. The last four are common in roleplaying games with hexploration, playing with rules for mooks/minions or powergaming (both are part of destruction), playing against the game with the game master taking the system's side, and acting out in character, to mention a few examples. What is not focused on is Sensation, and I wanted to explore that further.

    WHY, combined with a WHAT, creates a playstyle. WHAT is either (game) Structures, Group, Fiction, Setting, or Meaning. With Imagine, I wanted to create a Sensation within the Fiction and the Group. I can't avoid having other WHYs in my game or prevent people from bringing them to my game. I mean, someone who played D&D all their life will probably come with the preconception that a roleplaying game must be based around Exploration, Expression and Competition. It would be highly likely that this person would find my game boring or "not a roleplaying game".

    I need to early on tell my vision and WHY to play this game; to be able to early on break those preconceptions, or even make that person realize that this isn't a game for everyone. I need to make the person believe the vision early on so they can understand the rest of the structures in the game. If I said that I went shoplifting, people would raise an eyebrow. If they knew on beforehand that I had a starving child, they would understand WHY.

    The same goes with game texts.

    The following below is from the beginning of Imagine.
    Take the time and watch someone on the street. Who is that person? Where is she going? What happened in that person’s past that shaped who she is today? /.../

    I remember when I did that, trying to come up with answers about someone I didn’t know, and I got that tingling sensation in my gut as if I was riding a roller coaster. The same feeling I got the nights when I lay back in a field, watched the night sky and wondered how vast the universe really was.

    This is what Imagine will do to us. We’re going to follow several modern, fictive people and give them depth by both exploring their memories and to see their hopes and wishes come true. Time and space will disappear as we become immersed in this fiction together. By sharing and contributing to this fiction we will build a fellowship as we create a collective memory. The rest of the text will show how to tell a collaborative story to accomplish this.
    I'm not saying that this is spot on, but now you know my intention with that text.
  • edited January 2015

    Know Your Ways of Creating Uncertainty* and What Comes Along With It

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    The Importance of HOW
    Changes Keeps Up the Interest
    Drama is about Change
    Narrating With Theater, part two
    Uncertainty Creates Curiosity/Suspense - this one contains a list of uncertainties

    HOW you use the game connects the WHY and WHAT. It's what the structures in the game creates. Just like all the WHYs can come in various degrees, you can't avoid having any of the three HOWs Effort, Decision, and Uncertainty in your game but I chose to put more focus on Uncertainty in this game.
    × Effort is what creates participation.
    × Decision-making is interactivity.
    × Uncertainty brings the anticipation of change. How things are changed and what they are changed into is obscured and that is what makes uncertainty interesting.
    Using die rolls is, to me, both a simple and overused way of creating uncertainty.

    Using conflicts in a story is overused too in the Western society.

    Both are each ONE way of creating uncertainty. Both are, to me, taking the easy way out.
    What I have discovered are several different ways of creating uncertainty, and Imagine is using 1) kishotenketsu, 2) social contingency, and 3) breaking the routines to enforce that.

    Kishotenketsu is a story-orientated method, common in China, Japan and Korea, that exist in four phases:
    1. Introduce an element.
    2. Develop the element.
    3. Create a twist.
    4. Bring a conclusion.
    It's not until the fourth phase that the reader understands it all. It's in a way latheral thinking, where you need to understand a whole process instead of go through each step in a sequential matter. Lyrics and humor works in this way. You don't understand the whole story in a joke until the punchline comes. Imagine creates, through its situation structure, an uncertainty of what to come:
    1. Introduce one or several people taking part in a situation and develop it.
    2. Introduce a second situation with more people and develop it.
    3. Bring the people in the previous situations together in a third situation. This is both the twist and conclusion in one, where people understands why they introduced the first two situations and also getting to see the people in a different light. It adds depths to what has already been established and making people understand the whole process of getting there.
    Social contingency is basically not being able to predict what the other participants will contribute with. During the development of an element, each person may add only one sentence - or "descriptor" as I call it. This will create an uncertain outcome of where the situation will end up because so many people can have something to say about it. Your original idea perhaps must change depending on the others' descriptors.

    Breaking the routines is constantly changing how you describe things or what the focus of interest is. Describing a pear can change, in the next sentence, to describing the sky followed up by describing the mood of a person. By constantly changing, the participants will be uncertain of where everything will land. It's another structure that provides social contingency and is especially potent in combination of the previous described structure.


    * Creating Uncertainty ... or Decision ... or Effort ... or all of them together. It's just this game that focuses on Uncertainty alone because with it comes »change«, and that is what makes a story intriguing.
  • edited November 2014

    The Game Should Help Build a Group Sense to Bring Comfort

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    Creative Drama
    Building Group Dynamic
    The Game Master as a Colleague
    Spontaneity, part one
    Narrating With Theater, part one
    Flow and Development

    After the introductory text that explains WHY to play the game, a headline called Knowing One Another follows. What I like about this text is that the structure makes everybody read about the game; to understand it so everyone share the same wavelength. How often can you make the players read something voluntarily?
    Knowing One Another
    Start by presenting your name and then pick one line below and read it out loud. Pass the list around and let everybody do the same thing. Enforce these things in play!
    “I promise to …”
    “… be open to learn how to appreciate this game.”
    “… leave a blank mind of where we’re going.”
    “… keep the world ordinary and peaceful.”
    “… support the other participants and their ideas.”
    “… ask and discuss if I’m unsure of anything.”
    This is a classic ice-breaker but I feel this isn't enough. Sure, they introduce themselves but I would like more discussion about the game before beginning playing it. This is something I think all roleplaying games should have. There are a lot of beneficial factors.
    - You, as the game designer, get to explain the game early on.
    - You make everyone know what the game is about, limiting the risk of some participants dragging other WHYs into the game.
    - You let everyone know each other and their intentions.

    Picture yourself trying out bobsleigh for the first time, you meet the instructor and she pushes you into the sled right away, and kicks you down the icy track. Would you feel comfortable with that situation? No. You want to know the instructor so you can rely on her. You want to know the "rules". All this will make you more comfortable with what is going to happen. The same goes with roleplaying games.

    The more the players know the other participants and what the game is about, the more comfortable they are. Comfort is needed for participation in roleplaying games. I talked about HOW in the previous post and Effort is one of them. Effort is important to create a challenge but it's also partly about participation. You want people to participate, otherwise you will sit there with some structures and no one that speaks.
  • edited December 2014

    Design Interaction Models

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    A System
    Emergent Behavior
    Happiness in Action, part one
    Communication Follows Unspoken Structures
    Conversations Mutates
    Spontaneity, part one
    Spontaneity, part two
    Yes, but..., and the Czege Principle
    Narrating With Theater, part one
    Everything Comes With Structures

    So you want people to participate and, in any kind of game, we do that by interacting. Either with the system or with other participants. The way you communicate is through the game system and all participants are a part of this system. My first draft of the WHATs had "game mechanics" as one of the WHATs but I realized that we don't talk about "game mechanics" when it comes to communication. We all follow unspoken structures that we learned while growing up. Everything comes in structures and structures consists of pools, procedures, and triggers.

    This is something we can use in roleplaying games.

    When I talked about how Imagine created social contingency, I said that one person could only add one descriptor and then had to wait until someone else filled in with another one. That's an interaction model. The Czege Principle says that if you come up with both the obstacle and the solution, play isn't fun. What this basically comes down to is that play is boring when one person is holding a monologue. If four people plays a game and no interaction occurs between the participants, then there are four different gaming session. So this is why I got the following part in Imagine.
    Take Turns
    Help yourself breaking the routines by limiting yourselves to one descriptor each. Anyone can, at any time and in any order, add one descriptor. Even what you might think of as boring. Each person is wonderfully unique in how we perceive things and dress them up with words. Cherish that!
    See how I also try to bring comfort to make everyone participate?

    Another interaction model the game has is how a situation is played out by introducing Hopes and Memories so the group then can come back and give an update to the Present timeline. The game not only tells how the participates should communicate but it also tells about what they should talk about. All this creates comfort for the group.

    The game even teaches basic body language to ease the communication. If someone leans forwards, that is typical for showing interest, while leaning backwards means that they take a defensive position or isn't really that interested in what's going on. Humans are even programmed so that the body language affects how we feels. Leaning forward means, for most people, that you're become more interested in the activity.

    Roleplaying games must be better to show these basic interaction models,
    especially how we should talk to each other.
  • edited December 2014

    Feedback Loops Makes People More and More Invested

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    Rewards are a Subcategory to Feedback
    Different Kinds of Investments - a list of investments
    Immersion is Created Through Loops
    Immersion is the Reward For Playing
    Investment is All About Emotions
    Feedback Loops Creates Immersion
    Flow State and Skill Atoms
    Narrating With Theater, part one
    Flow, Leadership and Joy in Work

    Interaction is a constant loop that occur in a system between any of the participants or the structures within the system. When you do something, you will get a feedback that changes the game state so you can update your own thoughts for what you are about to do next. Over time, you will become more and more invested in the game through this interaction loop and the task becomes a reward in itself. The heuristic circle is one way of showing how this occurs.


    It's important, as a game designer, think of how to loop the structures into themselves and what kind of feedback is returned. If you get XP or any other kind of tangible reward for doing something cool, it feeds into the game mechanics and not back to the task itself. The proper response would be, as an example, instead to create a new situation where you can continue to do cool stuff.

    Fruitful interaction comes with loops. This is what "Yes, and" is all about—when you say something and someone builds on it by adding something else. This is what the part of the descriptors is doing in Imagine. It's a hidden "Yes, and" mechanic but also a feedback that loops into itself. Also, playing out a situation is a huge loop.

    Each loop, both the whole loop and the loop within the loop (occurs in the top right rectangle) will change the game state. It will also increase the investment more and more. That's how you create intrinsically rewarding tasks. Tasks that are fun to do by themselves, without having to rely on XP, artha, Fate points, fanmail or whatever.
  • edited November 2014

    Create Activities that are Fun to do By Themselves

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    Rewards are a Subcategory to Feedback
    Fun is an Emotional Response to Learning
    Immersion is the Reward for Playing
    The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
    Freeform Reward Mechanics - not from my thread but the post gives some good examples of social rewards.
    What is Positive Psychology?
    Intrinsic Motivation
    Autotelic Tasks and Operant Conditioning
    Flow, Leadership and Joy in Work
    Why Flow Wont Appear at Work

    I'm currently obsessed with Robocraft. It's a free-to-play computer game where you build robots and fight against other robots with your teammates. You can build smaller faster 'bots, big bots that can withstand a lot of damage but becomes slower because of the weight, you can build flying bots that can see larger distances but also be spotted, you can create hover crafts that can fly over any obstacles but are harder to steer. Even the four types of weapons changes how you play the robot. It's fun to build robots, but it's also fun to discover how that particular robot should be played. It's fun to do the activity. The game got an experience system where you can level up the robot and buy more advanced parts to use in your builds, but I don't care about that. I just enjoy building 'bots and playing with them so much.

    What I feel is common practice in tabletop roleplaying game design is to use positive reinforcement in form of tangible rewards (ex. XP, artha, fanmail) to make people do something. If I would like the participants to talk Korean, then I could give one point if they said a spell's name in Korean. That's legit game design, right?

    Slot machines. You pull a lever and get a feedback in form of symbols. That's the typical example of a task that is not fun to do. Grinding in any type of MMO is another example. You want that sword but to be able to get it you must kill 100 rats. What if the game instead made it fun to kill those rats without the tangible reward? I mean, Robocraft succeeded in doing it so why not make the same thing happen in MMOs? The thing is, with tangible rewards, you can disguise boring tasks by dangling a carrot above them. The question is: do the participants do it because of the fun of doing the task or because of the reward?

    Why do we roll for skills? It's basically throwing a plastic cube and we sometimes get a reward out of it when the character succeeds, but it's using the same psychology as a slot machine. Remove the reward and throwing a plastic thing isn't that fun anymore. It is, however, a totally different thing in how dice are used when it comes to random monster encounters, or the setup, tilt and end state in Fiasco. Then the dice doesn't determine the outcome (outgoing randomness) without giving anyone a say about it, but instead brings something into a situation (ingoing randomness). Then the dice roll fills a purpose.

    We want people to play because the task is fun in itself.

    So rely on the fact that the participants think the task is fun and make them more invested by using feedback loops. Attract the right target audience by projecting the game's WHY up in the sky. If you want people to talk Korean, attract an audience that want to learn the language. Then, like in the game Magicians, make speaking Korean a requirement for casting a spell. Let them say what the spell should do in Korean and have an app check if it's the right pronunciation. When the participants learn more words, more advanced spells can be thrown.

    Studies has shown that tangible rewards (ex. XP, artha, fanmail) only works if it is about 1) physical work or 2) a competition. Defeating monsters in a dungeon is a competition and getting XP for it is a fruitful way of using positive reinforcement. You also use game mechanics to overcome obstacles and the feedback in form of XP loops back into the game mechanics. The trouble occurs when people think all kinds of positive reinforcements in all situations works in the same way. The very same studies has shown that when it comes to using the intellect or creativity, tangible rewards does nothing or can even decrease the intrinsic motivation - the fun of doing the task by itself.

    Using positive reinforcement in that way is harmful game design.

    The only extrinsic positive reinforcements that works for activities that demands intellect or creativity are social rewards. To have someone listen to you and give your praise, or make you feel useful. Imagine does this with the hidden "Yes, and" mechanic, where the participants can only add one descriptor at time. Each descriptor changes the game state but also contributes to the whole experience because it can be picked up by anyone else to be built upon. The participant then know that someone has listened to what that person had to say.
  • edited November 2014

    Make the Readers Understand the Whole Process

    Ideas drawn from these posts
    Start With Why
    Creation of Work in Six Steps


    Here is where I am at the moment in my own learning as a game designer. I'm currently reading a book by Edward de Bono called I'm right. You're wrong. These ideas are so new to me that I haven't been able to write about them in We Know So Little of Our Hobby. I'm trying to find a new way of writing roleplaying games, and Imagine is my second attempt in a longer process.

    Over thousands of years, we have looked at frozen moments - like a stone in the sand - and then came up with reasons why those moments exist. This have formed our thinking pattern where we see things in a sequential matter that is ends with one moment. If anything doesn't look like that frozen moment, we try to argue about why that is wrong. I can understand the behavior because that particular moment might shape the world for some specific individuals, so this will make them feel the need to prove that they are right and you are wrong.

    This is a thinking pattern that colored, not only how we perceive things, but how we create. Literature is one example of a sequential thinking where there is a beginning, escalation, climax and finally a denouement. We have looked at the frozen moment and then came up with a structure for it. This is also how we play a game and how roleplaying games normally are described. If this is hard to grasp, let me show how play is perceived by the following example.

    Picture a fisherman.
    He uses his fishing rod,
    he throws out the lure into the water, catches a fish,
    and feels happy about it.

    But what would happen if we turned this around?

    Do you want to feel happy about yourself?
    Imagine the soothing sounds of the river and you relaxing by the tree.
    A fishing rod is what you need.

    Suddenly, we don't explain a sequential structure anymore but a whole process. When I was a teen, I always felt there was something ... "wrong" is the wrong word ... but alien about poems. I always thought it was because of the rhyme but it's actually because my brain tried to work out the whole process in poems, where literature instead is about me being guided through a sequence. Going through a sequence is great - it creates uncertainty of what to come - but because play does this automatically, we don't need to enforce it in the game text.

    What we need is to make the reader understand the full process.

    We do this by starting with explaining WHY to play the game, followed up by the end condition so the reader can understand what the whole process by knowing what the game strives against while reading the game. After Imagine describes the WHY, and the ice-breaker, the following paragraph can be read:
    The Overall Routine
    Repeat this routine up until we think that we can’t add any more situations, when a participant needs to leave, or when we feel that the craving for knowing more of the fiction is filled. Then the game ends.
    I began explaining the game by telling how it ends. Boardgames do this all the time, because the designers have already realize the importance of making the reader understand the whole process. By understanding what the game strives against, Every. Single. Structure. In. The. Game. will become more apparent of why that structure exist in the first place. The main difference between how a board game and a roleplaying game is explained is that a board game explains the structure of play.

    This difference exists because roleplaying games aren't games. They are game engines.

    With a roleplaying game, the game master normally read more and more about it, and then it's up to that person to make the best out of it. It's not until the chapter about how to create adventures that the structure of play are touched upon, and it's barely touched upon because roleplaying games normally lack a structure for communication. We got skills and characters with personality traits, but we have to fill in the gaps by ourselves. "OK, so I got Bluff so I can deceit people, and I'm »greedy« so I'm probably going to lie about what treasures I found when it comes to sharing with my comrades?"

    A roleplaying game is hard to write because the game designer needs to explain (to the game master) how to explain the structure of play (to the players). The structure of play should consist of interaction models, which in their turn consist of feedback loops. By focusing only on the structure of play, the page size of roleplaying games can decrease a lot. We can see this in the nano-games that have popped up these last few years.

    It's funny, because Edward de Bono says that we need to start at the end to explain the whole process.

    In MDA by Marc LeBlanc, he says that a game designer starts at one end in Mechanics<->Dynamics<->Aethetics but the player perceives the game in the opposite direction.

    In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud says that the creator of the comic starts in one end of Structure<->Craft<->Surface but the reader starts in the other.

    In Start with Why, Simon Sinek says that inspirational leaders start with Why->How->What when it's more natural for us to explain What->How->Why.

    Begin big and present your vision, and continue with finer and finer moments in your game. Just like I did with this thread. Create feedback loops like, well, how I returned to my first post about WHY with this one.

    Imagine what would happen if we did this.

    Imagine a world where we grokked the games right away.

    Imagine a world where we got an understanding, not only about the process of the game but also about how we communicate with each other.

    Imagine a world where we could put laser focus on what kind of experience we wanted by picking up a game.


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