Friday, July 17, 2015

Rules-Creativity Matrix Implementation for Sunday's Test Game

The Setup
On Sunday, I have a group of friends coming over to play 13th Age.  They are helping me get some gaming experience under my belt before I run several games for Pelgrane Press at GenCon at the end of the month.  To the best of my knowledge, only one has any role-playing game experience.  The other five are complete newbies to the hobby.  So, in addition to making sure that I’m able to efficiently run the system, I want to make sure that they have a good time.  They are all highly creative people: a lawyer, a high school principal, an event planner for a museum, an engineer, a scheduler for a member of Congress, and a real-estate entrepreneur (the one with the gaming experience).  The entrepreneur’s experience runs to Pathfinder, so I’m hoping that he’ll find 13th Age’s more freeform style to his liking.  I’m attracted to how it is story-driven.  I’ve recently finished reading Karl Bergström’s Creativity Rules: How rules impact player creativity in three tabletop [games] from the 3rd issue of the International Journal of Role-Playing.  Consequently, I want to consider how implementing different types of rules in my game can help my friends have the best time as we play 13th Age.  Of course, I’ve got to run the basic 13th Age engine—it wouldn’t make much of a training session for me if I didn’t—but that engine is flexible enough for me to play a little fast and loose.

My goals for my session:
·        Everyone has a fun time
·        Players feel actively engaged and that they have agency in
o   Designing a world and
o   Telling a story in it
·        Players feel that they quickly achieve “systems mastery”
·        I master the rules

How the Article Will Help Me
Bergström’s article studied six groups of role-players who each played sessions of three different games.  Bergström then considered how the games’ different rule systems affected the play experience.  The games were Dungeons & Dragons 3.5/Pathfinder, World of Darkness (new edition), and Legends of Anglerre (FATE).  2 groups were chosen as most familiar with each system but each group also played games in all three systems (that’s 36 games in all for those counting).  Through watching live play, one-on-one interviews, and interviews with the play groups, Bergström considered how the rules interacted with different types of creativity.  Bergström’ identified six types of creativity and nine rules functions.  By looking at how the two interact, I’m hoping to use this knowledge to get an idea about how I can best tailor my game for Sunday.

Types of Creativity I Want in My Games
·     Narrative (story) creativity: Ability of potential to create a good story, usually going outside your specific character and looking at the story as a whole.
·        Acting creativity: Being creative in the portrayal of your character
·   Game-world creativity: Used to create the setting and elements within, including characters backstory, geography or inhabitants of a region, organizations in the game world.
·     System creativity: Creativity required to adapt rules system to the specific group and its needs and wants.

I role-play to tell stories and that’s what the types of creativity I prize most are focused upon.  I’ll take a look at what the rules elements are that best help to encourage these types of creativity and try to emphasize them in my play.  I’ve added systems creativity to this list to remind myself that one of the best points about systems creativity is that I can take systems that might not emphasize these types of creativity (or actively emphasize the types I’ve outlined below) and modify those systems to better reflect the result I’m looking to achieve.

Types of Creativity I Feel Are Creative Outlets for Players Otherwise Constrained by the Rules
·    Gaming creativity: Creativity in using the rules towards a specified outcome.  This includes optimizing characters and choosing the correct action rules-wise at any given moment.
·      Problem-solving creativity: Relationship between the player’s ability to solve puzzles, etc. and the character’s ability to do so.

To me, these two are somewhat related.  Honestly, I am not sure that I’d even have considered problem-solving creativity as a category in and of itself.  To me, it’s the result of friction between the forces that push towards gaming creativity and acting creativity.  As such, I’ve marked it in yellow and am content to ignore it.  I am not a fan of gaming creativity (which is ironic, since the game I play most often is Pathfinder).  This is likely because of my day job.  As a government affairs representative for a trade association in Washington, DC (I’ll leave you to puzzle out what that’s a euphemism for), I’m often working the rules to my advantage in my day job. 

I certainly find it useful to have an understanding of how rules underpin systems.  But, that’s my work.  Role-playing is my play.  So, it’s not a judgment call that systems that encourage players towards gaming creativity are bad, per se.  Rather, it’s the fact that I have to do gaming creativity with the rules I work in all day long.  So, I’m less inclined to want to do so when I’m on my free time.  Similarly, I don’t much enjoy talking about politics after hours.  Ironically, my favorite role-playing games are the ones that are focused on skills and role-play versus combat.  Political intrigue is always a good draw.  But, if I’m going to get involved in those things, I want to do it in a setting that isn’t Washington, DC in the current day.

Flavors of Creativity / Role of Rules
“Narration first” vs. “rules first”
Rules as arbitrator
Rules as creative coolant
Rules as consistency provider
Rules as inspiration
Rules as support
Rules as communication
Rules as randomness
Rules as diegetic control mechanism
Narrative (story) creativity


Acting creativity


Gaming creativity



Problem-solving creativity


Game-world creativity


System creativity
Meta and uninfluenced by rules

A Few Rules to Rule Them
So, now that I’ve got this information, how should I implement rules in a game?  As I look across the green bars, there are no Xs that appear in more than one bar.  If there were, I’d focus on that rules element most.  Instead, I’ll work at it from the other angle.  Rules functions that relate only to green should be emphasized; those with green and yellow results should receive less emphasis; those with green and red results should receive even less emphasis; and those that have no green results should receive the least emphasis.  At that point in time, we bring out the meta-rule of system creativity to make the tweaks in the next section. 

Considering how to teach the game and make it enjoyable for my players, in a nod to gaming creativity, I’ve optimized the rules functions.  Having done this, I can go ahead and look at mapping what I want out of my game in the way that I use the rules to define the gaming experience.

Most Important
·     Rules as inspiration: I want the rules and options to help my players come up with character concepts.  As such, I will want to help inform players without overwhelming them.  In 13th Age I’m trying to do this by using semi-pre-generated characters.  Mechanically the characters are all done except for a few parts.  The characters’ background/skills, one unique thing, and icon relationships have not been chosen yet.  I think that creating backgrounds and one unique things will help the players better identify with their characters.  I’m hopeful that the icon relationships will do so as well, but worry that they might be a little too confusing for newer players.  To make this happen, I’m engaging in a little bit of system creativity.  Rather than giving each player 3 dice to assign under the assumptions in the book, I’m going to ask them to pick a heroic or ambiguous icon that they have a positive relationship with and to pick an ambiguous or villainous icon that they have a conflicted or negative relationship with.  We’ll do two dice rolls instead of three.  I feel like this simplifies things while allowing some level of control over the story.
·        Rules as creative coolant: The last time I was explaining playing Pathfinder to a new player, a lawyer was in the room and remarked that knowledge of the rules was remarkably similar to having to know case law.  In fact, I feel like this is very true.  So, I want things to run as simply as possible.  I’ve made a single page poster that presents skills, one unique things, 1-3 sentences about each icon, and very basic information about the 13th Age setting.  Where possible, there are examples.  At the same time we use the rules as inspiration, I want to reinforce that they all fit on a single (albeit small poster-sized) page.
·      Rules as communication: This one is easy.  I just need to remind my players that the rules are abstractions and exist to help them envision concepts that are inherently unquantifiable.  We’ll talk a little bit about failing forward, envisioning your character from your stats, etc.  But, we’ll also talk about how the rule of cool trumps the rules as written (see “rules as arbitrator” at the bottom down there?).  But, because I want my players to feel like they have agency, we’ll talk about how the rule of cool is what everybody at the table thinks is cool rather than what I, as the GM, think is cool.
·   [Rules as support] / [Rules as diegetic control mechanism]: These rules didn’t have any creativity functionality in any categories.  But, I feel like they are important for establishing player agency.  I’ve covered this in the section above, but I want the players to know that the rules give them some level of control from my arbitrary whim and that when we ignore the rules, we do so as a group.  It’s my hope that emphasizing that will reinforce their agency as active participants in the story.

Less Important
·        Rules as consistency provider: This actually links into the above thoughts, except that it focuses more on internal consistency.  That’s more important for a long-term campaign where the goal is more about simulating a long-term story.  Here, the goal is actually about teaching the game and having fun.  Internal consistency has its place (and I admit that it’s mobile on this list), but for Sunday it’s on the lower end of the spectrum.
·        Rules as “narration first” vs. “story first”: I don’t care much if my players narrate their actions before applying the rule or announce the rule and apply it before narrating their action.  They are first time players.  In fact, I’m throwing out both and focusing on “intent first.”  What my players intended to do is what matters most.  That gives them the opportunity to play into the story, but without feeling burdened by adhering to the rules.
·        Rules as randomness: Dice rolls create randomness.  I like randomness.  But, dice rolls are not rules.  Also, dice rolls are a great opportunity to allow players to be creative.  Failing forward will be important here.  In fact, at first I was surprised to see rules as randomness to land here.  But, upon reflection, even for 13th Age, this makes sense.  Since most of a player’s rolls will be skills, the optimization that occurs is the push to design a character that’s able to make the skill roll in as many situations as possible.  I hope my players don’t feel the need to do that.  Ideally, the 13th Age more generic adventure design system that allows the GM to focus in and customize the situations to the one unique things, backgrounds/skills, and icon relationships that the players have chosen will help leave the illusion of randomness without pushing my players towards feeling overwhelmed and like they need to master a system that is unmasterable.
·        Rules as arbitrator:  Least important—this is the rule of cool issue.  If I and the players at my table think that what the player wants to do or whatever else might happen is the best idea for the story, it happens.  This may be less applicable at GenCon because better rules knowledge often means that someone has to act as arbitrator.  That means either rules as written or GM fiat.  While those can be necessary, I pray that they won’t be.  For Sunday’s game, I’m almost sure that they won’t be.

So there you have it.  I’m hoping to get a good post-mortem post up on Sunday night as well, highlighting what I feel like went well and where I need to improve.  Come back and see how things went down!  This article drew on many pieces for support and I’d like to thank the authors and presenters whose thoughts and words have been useful to helping me get to this point of comfort as I prepare for this weekend’s game:

Karl Bergström, Creativity Rules: How rules impact player creativity in three tabletop [games], International Journal of Role-Playing Vol. I, Issue 3.
Jessica Price and [sorry, I couldn’t catch her name], Introducing New Gamers to Pathfinder,