If you’ve been following the blog for awhile (if you’re new, hello!) you know that I believe in player involvement and investment above almost all else. Even though I mostly GM, I do my best to make it as not about what I’ve built as possible. The thought of players staring lovingly into my eyes as I describe a stunning vista in front of them for 10 minutes fills me with dread, not of delivering the scene (I can talk for days), but of being with a group that is passively waiting for me to relay information into their imagination. I want fun, but I don’t want to be the guy who is in charge of making fun.
This is because I think “fun” is an end-result of play. I don’t think you can design with fun in mind without getting frustrated. Fun is so personalized; what I find fun and what you find fun can be completely different things, and can completely oppose each other. Put us at the table and a GM now has to make fun for both of us?
Trying to make fun directly can be difficult. It can be mitigated with agreements and trust at the table, but I think if we cast our net wider we can create a platform in which players can make their fun, rather than have one person responsible for several people’s version of fun. To make this platform, I think you have to stop designing for fun and build around it. Design for interest, investment and engagement, and you triangulate the fruitful void where fun lives.
Interest is the state of wanting to know or learn about something or someone. In the context of an RPG, it’s building fiction and establishing a method of interacting with the fiction that allows for characters to move towards and into it. I make my games interesting if players get feedback that invites exploration. Interest on its face seems like a synonym for fun, but interest has no emotional charge. One can be interested in things lighthearted or horrific or even a little bit dry.
When creating interest, what’s most important is you create something that provokes players to go further. Even if the element presented has a completely mapped out representation, you can create interest by only presenting part, and letting players move towards the rest.
Investment is sense of ownership. The simplest way to create investment is to let players establish and “build” things in the world. No one can care but so much for things they don’t control,influence, or create. Let players do more than just be inhabitants of a world, responding to what occurs; let them be co-authors in the experience and you increase investment. As you increase investment, players will tend to act rather than react, and in your role as chief troublemaker, the things they invest in provide hooks and targets. When you threaten to blow up the world, a player can go through the heroic motions; when you threaten a player’s part of the world that they built, you can get a real response.
Engagement measures activity. It’s not how much are the players doing (but they should be doing a lot), but are the getting to make real decisions when they take actions? You can roll a lot of dice and step through a lot of procedures and not make real decisions. Whatever your processes and systems entail, they should never outweigh the impact of the decisions that players make. When I think of game “balance” this days, this is what I’m typically looking at. Are characters making decisions commensurate with the “paperwork” they need to do?
I think part of engagement is getting players to look forward to their next moment to act, but making the process of taking actions exciting enough that they stay tuned into the action even when they do not act. I think a game where players are only tuned in when they act has a porous level of engagement. It typically means that the procedures and steps that a player has to go through are long-winded compared to what they produce. It’s not interesting or engaging to watch someone else’s actions but it is fun to take your own. I want to play games and run games where we are excited about the actions that everyone is taking.
I think often we push this to table culture when we could look at the structure and/or rules of our games instead. I’m not saying table culture is not responsible, but when the table culture is flawed, so much other stuff is not working. I’d rather look at what we can design instead of trying to fix people and relationships.
This is a model I’ve been building for a few years now and have just now started to express. There are a lot of frustrations I’ve had with more traditional models of GMing advice, so I’ve been working towards this to help me have the games I want.
I found when I focused on my inputs, outputs, and systems for engagement, my games got much closer to whatever we were defining as “fun”. Because fun is, I think, as much about your expectations and needs as it is about the vaunted feedback loop (which is still a useful model).
Anyway, I’m sure there is deeper to go, and points of contention that can be raised. I am all up for some respectful debate, so let’s get on that!