Engines

edited April 2008 in Stuff to Watch
I've written a blog post about how I see the various Story Games being of three different game engine categories:

http://coloradostorygames.com/2008/04/09/engines.aspx

I'd love to hear your comments (here or there, preferably there).

Comments

  • Huh. Actually, that's pretty interesting. I've always made the subconscious division between "physics engine games" and other games (or "primarily physics engine games", for those ones with Hero Points etc), but looking at your three categories, they're actually pretty useful maybe.

    -Andy
  • Interesting. So...My Life with Master is a Story Arc Engine? (Is it meaningful to make a distinction between Story Arc games like Dust Devils, where the creative destination is the end of the character, and My Life with Master, where the creative destination is the end of play?)

    And Bacchanal is a Storytelling Engine.

    And I wonder what Acts of Evil is...the NPCs sometimes have story arcs.

    Paul
  • I think this is very interesting. However, I think the strongest split is between the physics engine games and the other kinds. In particular, I find that third category hard to agree with. Doesn't fan mail make PTA a control economy engine? How are die rolls in Dogs a control economy?

    These two examples don't encompass my issues with category three, but they're the kinds of things I thought of as I read it.
  • Thanks for the interest and the ideas. I really don't know if I can answer some of these questions due to my inexperience. And if you think I should change my terms or add a category or you want to help me expand on something you see lacking, fire away.

    Paul, sorry, I don't have any experience with any of the games you mentioned. I'd like to, but I want to play all the Story Games I own before I go buy more. So you tell me where you think those games fit or what needs to change or be added for them to fit.
    Posted By: Robert BohlI think this is very interesting. However, I think the strongest split is between the physics engine games and the other kinds.
    Me too, I think getting away from a physics engine is the big step that makes all Story Games something very different.
    Posted By: Robert BohlIn particular, I find that third category hard to agree with. Doesn't fan mail make PTA a control economy engine? How are die rolls in Dogs a control economy?
    Well I tried to emphasize that I'm categorizing these games by what they primarily do. Certainly there are going to be particulars shared across the boundaries. But I'm not claiming I did it all right or anything either. I'm very willing to discuss and change the model.

    I did think about that aspect of PtA when I was working this out. Fan Mail is very important to the game, but even if no Fan Mail is being earned or spent the game goes on and follows the story arc of a television season. And I think having a high screen presence is more powerful than having the average amount of Fan Mail to spend. That's the way I saw it for PtA. I've played several session of PtA, but they were all one-shots, so maybe I'm missing something that I would know from having played a full season?

    I haven't played Dogs. But from reading it, it occured to me that it's very different from rolling dice in any other RPG. When you roll the dice, the numbers become fixed and you use them as resources in the bidding process. That's what I saw as a "control economy". Am I way off base here?

    Do you think the name/description of the third category is wrong or the games that are in it? Like I said, I haven't played any of those games, just read them. The all seemed to be stronger GM, non-story-arc, player-choice-driven games. I thought I saw a "control economy" in each of those, but maybe that's reaching too far to get them all in one "engine"?

    PS - I'm changing some of the terms based on feedback and just a general desire to do so. Story Arc Engine is now Plot Arc Engine and Storytelling Engine is now Cooperative Narration Engine.
  • I'd be quite interested to see the Physics Engine category subdivided (and the control economy as well), because I have a sneaking feeling that some "story Games" are in fact physics engines with a very different emphasis to something like D&D.

    An example, for me, would be In a Wicked Age. Despite it's aim to simulate serial swords and sorcery novels I don't think it is primarily a Plot Arc Engine (though I could be wrong), or at least its conflict resolution system isn't. Instead the conflict system attempts to *tell you what happens* when you do tangible things in the fiction. The fact that those things are resolved with abstract qualities and negotiation doesn't, to me, make it not a physics engine, just a very story focussed one. I have this notion that you could divide physics engines up into categories too according to the levels of realism / impartiality involved and include things like IAWA in that category too.

    Or I could be talking rubbish :)
  • edited April 2008
    Posted By: HituroI'd be quite interested to see the Physics Engine category subdivided (and the control economy as well), because I have a sneaking feeling that some "story Games" are in fact physics engines with a very different emphasis to something like D&D.
    I think there is a thicker line between physics engines and the other engines that I didn't discuss. I think a physics engine is more concerned with what should happen according to the physics with little or no regard to what would be good for the story or even the game in most cases. When you try to climb a wall in a physics engine game it doesn't matter if this is an important action or just something you're doing on a lark. What matters is how skilled you are, how difficult it is, and how well you rolled - all parts of the physics equation. Some physics engine games have "action points" that allow you to mess with the physics a little bit, but these are usually much more limited (in number and possible applications) than the tokens in something like SotC. They are usually intended for "fixing" a bad result, not controlling the direction of the story/game.

    When you say IAWA would resolve that through abstract qualities and negotiation, I'm hearing that the importance/relevance of the action could come into play. Never played/read that either, so I'm just going off of what you said.
    Posted By: HituroI have this notion that you could divide physics engines up into categories too according to the levels of realism / impartiality involved and include things like IAWA in that category too.
    Well, it's your notion, so please flesh it out for us so we can have a look at it?
  • Well the way I am looking at a physics engine is that it runs by a sense of logic, a logic of what *should* happen in the game world. Often this is bound up in some sort of real-world physical law, i.e. you take damage from falling because of gravity and mass, but just as often the laws involved are nothing to do with the real-world, like rules for magic systems, psionics, superpowers, or cinematic action. The key thing, though, is that there is a sense of *how things work* at play.

    It should be possible, then, to have such a system even for a narrative focussed game, by saying that things work as they ought to *for your story*. Such a system wouldn't be all about the ability to make anything at all happen in the fiction, but to make things which are plausible / right happen, where 'right' is a function of the type of narrative you are creating. That would be a narrative physics engine to me. A system like that could actually be more of a simulation engine (simulating a type of narrative) than Hero points on top of a real-world physics engine, but the Hero points specifically break the underlying laws of the physics engine.

    I was trying to do something like that with Solipsist, making it a game all about how the individual character narratives, which each have their own sets of right and wrong ways for things to happen, interact with each other, so maybe my own game would qualify for this category. In Solipsist you establish the nature of the fiction (e.g. spy drama) and things just play out the way they should in a spy drama until someone users their powers to change the sort of world you are playing in. Of course in that sense Solipsist might not qualify because the rule set is all about how you establish which sort of narrative is in force, not how you then simulate that narrative style.
  • Posted By: scottdunphyDo you think the name/description of the third category is wrong or the games that are in it?
    I guess the point is I don't really have a clear understanding of what the third category means.

    PS: Great work. You don't need to be tentative about your conclusions. This is strong mojo.
  • Hey Scott,
    Posted By: scottdunphy
    PS - I'm changing some of the terms based on feedback and just a general desire to do so. Story Arc Engine is now Plot Arc Engine and Storytelling Engine is now Cooperative Narration Engine.
    Check out the Game Chef version of Bacchanal here (note: I entered it to the contest under a pseudonym). It's close enough to the print version that you'll be able to decide its engine. (I'm thinking "Storytelling Engine" works, but it's probably too competitive for "Cooperative Narration Engine".)

    Paul
  • Thanks, I'll take a look at it.
    Posted By: Paul Czege(I'm thinking "Storytelling Engine" works, but it's probably too competitive for "Cooperative Narration Engine".)
    Before reading it I know you're right. Munchausen is also a competitive game. Maybe it should be "Cooperative/Competitive Narration Engine"? Or just "Shared Narration Engine". Possibly "Interference Narration Engine" - that's fun but a bit silly and potentially confusing.
  • edited May 2008
    Posted By: Paul CzegeCheck out the Game Chef version of Bacchanalhere(note: I entered it to the contest under a pseudonym). It's close enough to the print version that you'll be able to decide its engine. (I'm thinking "Storytelling Engine" works, but it's probably too competitive for "Cooperative Narration Engine".)
    I finally got around to reading this. Would have sooner, but I went to Vegas!

    I actually think that Bacchanal is a Plot Arc Engine. Of course, I haven't played it and it seems from the reading that there are a lot of dynamics that would come out of play that aren't on the page, so I could be missing something big.

    It seems to me that the dice and the flow of the dice serve the purpose of increasing debauchery and bringing the character's closer to either their companion and escape or capture and defeat. The mechanics tell you when to have a final scene and what kind of scene it will be. Sure, the players have a lot of influence and it's very narrative (and the PCs don't directly interact?), but the stories they're telling will ultimate fit the structure of either escaping the debauchery with their companion or being lost in it and falling into the hands of the empire that will execute them.

    Of course, I'm saying all that to provoke debate about which of the "engines" it fits into. So please let me know what you think!

    PS - I'd love to play this game but it's hard for me to imagine ever having the right group for it!
    PPS - I'm actually leaning towards "Interference Narration Engine" for that type.
  • I'm having difficulty with this.

    I can see some delineation between mechanics that _tell you what happens_ as opposed to mechanics that tell you _whose turn it is to say what happens_, but not so much the other stuff. Also, a distinction between mechanics that settle or create conflicts between players or their characters, and mechanics that everyone agrees to use to create stuff for the fiction (like rolling up a random planet in Traveller, random encounter tables, etc). However...

    As you yourself point out, games like PTA, Dogs, SotC, etc, have elements of "economy engine" as well as "plot arc engine", for different parts of the game. Why is it meaningful to place them in one category or another? How do you decide which?

    Also, the "soft" (non-mechanical) bits of the text are extremely important. Town creation, relationships, etc, and the way they interact with the system to create moral choices are just as important to Dogs as the dice play/economy (if not more so). Another example: the Riddle of Steel. I'm not sure these games fit your three categories in any meaningful way. If you think they do, can you explain?

    Furthermore, "physics" is a bit problematic, as well. It sounds like, by your definition, something like D&D would fit in this category. But the mechanics don't really emulate "what would happen". It's about providing grounds for tactical play.

    So, why these three categories?
  • edited May 2008
    Posted By: Paul T.Why is it meaningful to place them in one category or another?
    I'm not certain that it is. I just had a thought that there were different types of Story Games engines and I wanted to explore that idea. It might lead nowhere, but so far it's been an interesting thought exercise - for me anyway.
    Posted By: Paul T.How do you decide which?
    Well, I've been trying to do that by answering the questions "What's the key mechanic that shapes the story in this game?" So even though a game has a lot of stuff from the other engine types, if the story is shaped by a different mechanic then that's the category I'm putting it in. For example, "With Great Power..." has a lot of Control Economy kind of mechanics with the cards, but the story is shaped by the Plot Arc mechanic. But that's just my methodology for categorizing them.
    Also, the "soft" (non-mechanical) bits of the text are extremely important. Town creation, relationships, etc, and the way they interact with the system to create moral choices are just as important to Dogs as the dice play/economy (if not more so).
    Sure, and the clan structure and backstory of WoD is critical to playing Vampire, probably a lot more so than the physics engine. But I don't think in examining the engine that I can encompass that kind of thing. I certainly don't intend for this to result in "You should only play Plot Arc games," or "Only Narrative Interference Engines are real Story Games". So while I'm trying to look at these games by stripping them down, they certainly are more than just their engine and resolution mechanics, I don't want to lose sight of that either.
    Another example: the Riddle of Steel. I'm not sure these games fit your three categories in any meaningful way. If you think they do, can you explain?
    I don't know Riddle of Steel, sorry. But above I talked a bit about why I think Dogs fits in the Control Economy category, but I'm taking a guess there. And certainly there could be other engine types I'm overlooking or that I'm ignorant of.
    Furthermore, "physics" is a bit problematic, as well. It sounds like, by your definition, something like D&D would fit in this category. But the mechanics don't really emulate "what would happen". It's about providing grounds for tactical play.
    Now, D&D is something I know a lot about. I don't think "physics engine" means "what would happen". Halo certain has a physics engine and it has little to do with what would happen in the real world. But I've always seen D&D as a simulation of heroic action movies, not reality. I don't think a physics engine is in conflict with "providing grounds for tactical play". Certainly video games with physics engines have tactical play.
    So, why these three categories?
    Those are the three I can think of. Mostly I saw a distinction between the Plot Arc games which I have some experience playing and "A Penny For My Thoughts" which is very different. Once I started thinking of those as two different engines, I had to come up with an engine type for some of the other games I'd been reading (but still haven't played, darn it) that clearly didn't fit into those two categories.
  • For a "Cooperative Narration Engine" that makes no claim at roleplaying at all, try Once Upon A Time.
  • Posted By: scottdunphy
    I'm not certain that it is. I just had a thought that there were different types of Story Games engines and I wanted to explore that idea. It might lead nowhere, but so far it's been an interesting thought exercise - for me anyway.
    Nothing wrong with that! :)

    Now, D&D is something I know a lot about. I don't think "physics engine" means "what would happen". Halo certain has a physics engine and it has little to do with what would happen in the real world. But I've always seen D&D as a simulation of heroic action movies, not reality. I don't think a physics engine is in conflict with "providing grounds for tactical play". Certainly video games with physics engines have tactical play.
    OK, so here's the issue: if D&D is a simulation of heroic action movies, how is PTA not a simulation of, well, primetime television, or Baron Munchausen not a simulation of Baron Munchausen stories? Then why aren't they "physics engine" games? Once Upon A Time is another good example. What about Universalis?

    I'm just not really seeing the lines, as you've drawn them.

    There has definitely been a history of design as "physics engines". And the games being created now by fine folks like the people on this forum use a lot of techniques that would be foreign to one of those games. And many use "control economies" to accomplish one thing, "plot arc" techniques and narrate in character (for instance, flashbacks, Confessionals from InSpectres, etc), all at the same time. And many of those games wouldn't hold together if you took out or minimized any of those parts.

    And what about mechanics that exist to create dynamics between _the players_, and have less to do with the fiction? For instance, things like Gift Dice (TSoY) and Trust (in Mountain Witch), while they do relate to the story, have a lot more to do with allowing the players to create certain feelings and dynamics at the table.

    Pure storytelling games (like Once Upon a Time) are also worth considering, although they are rarer, and if they don't qualify as RPGs to you, that's fine.

    Finally, how would you classify Polaris under this scheme?

    Cheers,


    Paul
  • edited May 2008
    Posted By: Paul T.OK, so here's the issue: if D&D is a simulation of heroic action movies, how is PTA not a simulation of, well, primetime television, or Baron Munchausen not a simulation of Baron Munchausen stories? Then why aren't they "physics engine" games?
    Thanks, I should have been more precise. I think D&D is a simulation of the physics in a heroic action movie. If it were a broader simulation of those movies D&D would have rules preventing you from killing the main villain in the first scene, just for starters. I see the structure of all traditional RPG rules as physics engines - you have stats that describe how your character interacts with the fictional world and those stats bound what you can and can't do. In a lot of Story Games, those questions of physics ("Can I climb the wall?") are taken out of the mechanics and must be answered by whoever has narrative control and by the realism or veracity expected by the group.

    That's one of the reasons I said that most Control Economy Engines share a lot of trappings with Physics Engines. Games like SotC and Dogs have stats too. I think the dividing line is if the stats - and thereby the physics - are more important to what you can and can't do than some other part of the game. But yes, that's a fuzzy line and a subjective call.
    Posted By: Paul T.There has definitely been a history of design as "physics engines". And the games being created now by fine folks like the people on this forum use a lot of techniques that would be foreign to one of those games. And many use "control economies" to accomplish one thing, "plot arc" techniques and narrate in character (for instance, flashbacks, Confessionals from InSpectres, etc), all at the same time. And many of those games wouldn't hold together if you took out or minimized any of those parts.
    Absolutely. I'm not trying to be the second coming of Ron Edwards where I'm going to tell you that games need to focus on one engine type to be a good game. I'm just looking for what makes all of these very different kinds of games "story". I think they all are, I'm just trying to categorize the different techniques that create that.

    Maybe it's a mistake to put games like Bacchanal into just one category here? I've been seeing Plot Arc as a trump over Control Economy because if the game creates a plot through the mechanics I see that as the central driver of "story".
    Posted By: Paul T.And what about mechanics that exist to create dynamics between _the players_, and have less to do with the fiction? For instance, things like Gift Dice (TSoY) and Trust (in Mountain Witch), while they do relate to the story, have a lot more to do with allowing the players to create certain feelings and dynamics at the table.
    Unfortunately, I haven't played or read these. Are there other examples? Perhaps this is another engine type?
    Posted By: Paul T.Pure storytelling games (like Once Upon a Time) are also worth considering, although they are rarer, and if they don't qualify as RPGs to you, that's fine.
    They really do qualify as RPGs to me and that's one of the inspirations for coming up with this engines idea. I'm assuming "Once Upon a Time" is on the same plane as APFMT. Paul, Levi, do either of you have a link for "Once Upon a Time"?
  • edited May 2008
    Posted By: scottdunphyThey really do qualify as RPGs to me and that's one of the inspirations for coming up with this engines idea. I'm assuming "Once Upon a Time" is on the same plane as APFMT. Paul, Levi, do either of you have a link for "Once Upon a Time"?
    http://www.atlas-games.com/onceuponatime/

    Not, from my view, an RPG. No assigned or fixed characters, in-character speech and the similar are very much outside of "generic" play, and so on.
  • Posted By: scottdunphyI actually think that Bacchanal is a Plot Arc Engine...
    I re-thought this yesterday and I now think that I was wrong on this point. I realized that "A Penny For My Thoughts", the primary Cooperative Narration or Narration Interference enging that I'm familiar with, also has a Plot Arc structure. But for that, and Bacchanal and presumably all other similar games, the story is shaped less by the plot arcing mechanic than it is by the narration and the other participant and randomizers ablities to interfere with that narration and then the narrator adapting to those random elements. Yes, I think think the other participants are random elements - far more random than dice in most cases!

    What I think threw me about Bacchanal is that the interference comes from the dice results more than from the other participants; in APFMT and Munchausen the interference is just from the other players. So I think I wasn't seeing the dice for what they really are and I moved the plot arc bits to primacy in my mind.

    Levi, thanks for the link! I didn't realize you were talking about a card game. I have a similar card game in my collection...somewhere...
  • I guess I'm saying that, from where I'm sitting, those "engines" look like techniques, or specific types of mechanics, as opposed to being entire types of games. Like, "Game X uses "control economy" to distribute narrative ability, "physics engine" to control character success, and "plot arc" type mechanics come from a predefined scene structure."

    "Physics engine" might be an exception to that, though. Something like GURPS doesn't seem to have ANY of the other stuff (control economy, plot arc, narration, etc) in it. It could really be seen as a pure "physics engine".
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