Signals as a Design Tool

Signals as a Design Tool
Satellite Dish
Great RPG design is a lot about what you signal to players from the outset.  People bring in their own expectations of what the game is, and they run down roads the second they see signals that you are building something that resembles a past pattern. This is natural, as humans are hard-wired to make meaning, which in essence is creating shorthand and shortcuts.

Signals are important because they control expectation, and the bulk of how an audience feels about a piece of work comes from expectation. A lot of frustration in design is intending one thing, but seeing people do something different than what you intended — heck, even contradicting what was literally stated in the text — and taking issue with that. This frustration is where the philosophy of “Playing well or right” in some storytelling circles evolves from.

While I have experienced the frustration and understand the notion to get players to “do it right” by not complaining, tweaking or revising the process of play, I think we as designers must understand that we are communicators.  Some people refuse to communicate in good faith, that is true…but many cases it is about us stating one thing and signaling another.

All good designers borrow from other sources to create the best experience they can, but it is a common trap to forget that every structure, process and feedback mechanism we use comes with its own set of signals. Being unaware of those signals can lead to crossed up expectations and behaviors between designer and player.

What are signals in game design?

Signals are mechanical or textual structures that indicate what participant behaviors are expected and rewarded. Signals communicate through pattern-matching or pattern-breaking. For instance, a game with Hit Point signals that combat is relevant to some degree, as it matches the pattern of D&D and many other games that use the same structure. Going further, including any life-tracking element whatsoever signals that death, and therefore violent struggle, is a part of your storytelling experience.

The absence of life-tracking elements signals through pattern-breaking. If there is no way to track life, it indicates through lack that the experience is not about a life or death struggle, but about other stakes.

You need more than signals to create a game, obviously. With or without the life-tracking element of our example, you still need to provide the implementation of mechanics or process that utilize these signaling structures. And players need to follow them!
From my own observations, a common occurrence is for players to follow “signaled” rules rather than the rules as written, even when stated clearly. People see that pattern and they make the connection.  If you include a life-tracking element but write rules that do not engage it, or use it for something else (maybe you mean to track levels of happiness instead), your audience is still going to pattern  match often with what they know it to typically be, often going so far as to assume you as a designer have made an omission or typo.
Great design is about aligning your signals with your intent and bringing people as close to your experience as possible. Now, someone will always bring up those acting in bad faith, but I don’t build games or experiences for those who refuse to appreciate them or understand them on their own terms, and I don’t think you should either. For some people the fact that Underworld or Radio Free Kaiju is nothing like another game that they really like is an immediate non-starter; to be clear, what I discuss about signals is not intended for that audience. Signals aren’t a persuasive tool, they are sorting and communication tool.

Signals in RFK

What I like about Radio Free Kaiju’s structure currently is that every scene it gives someone a role with it’s own specialized brand of authority. I think that Channels as a concept work, even though I have been dissatisfied with the end result of the implementation. Individuals can make it work or not work, but it takes too much interpretation or feedback from the designer directly to bridge the gap created by cognitive dissonance.

Additionally, the way it is structured, it signals to valuing things it doesn’t. The game currently requires a facilitator because it has one book and a bunch of rules, which means one person is a faux GM/arbiter. This in turn signals to others that there are player roles to be had, whose only responsibility is to the control of a character. Also, it signals repeated campaign play, and I’m not intending that either. That’s not what I want or intend, so that means sending better role signals.

Last, the problem with my Social Fiction work so far is that it uses Freeform and improv but can sometime not guide sufficiently. Radio Free Kaiju does a lot of work of doing world creation but then doesn’t set you up to use all of those elements correctly. Too much upfront world-building creates an expectation of payoff and re-incorporation. It also signals that the game is about this steady buildup, best done over several sessions so we can use all of this juicy material.  But that’s not what I want, or what I think the best option for Radio Free Kaiju is.  I want RFK to be more improv and cinematic; more authorial and less about individuals connecting to individual characters.  The intent here is to enjoy the world as authors and co-creators, immersing in acting enough to see your creation in motion.

But again, signals! These structures I use aren’t bad generally — I actually think the worldbuilding piece is quite strong, for example — but many of the current structures in the game are bad for the context in which I use them.

Core to signal design is context. The reason we playtest games, in fact is to compare the context of designer intent with the context of player experience. Where there is a mismatch, we then need to see what we signaled as designers without being aware. What assumptions are players bringing in, and how did we match or break those assumptions? Whatever we say as designers works best when we create the proper mental environment for those who play our games. A lot of game design texts talk about proper reward/feedback design, but I believe paying more attention to what we signal implicitly through our structures is often forgotten.

Whatever we say as designers works best when we create the proper mental environment for those who play our games. A lot of game design texts talk about proper reward/feedback design, but I believe paying more attention to what we signal implicitly through our structures is often forgotten.

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