Reflections on UnPub: Putting Players in the World of Your Game

I went to UnPub4 in Delaware last weekend, and if you haven’t been, you need to go. If you’re a designer, then you can get great feedback from other designers and playtesters for less than the cost of attending any other con I’ve been to.  If you’re a player, you can get in for free (which is probably less than you paid for the last con you attended) and have a chance to play a bunch of the games that are going to be sapping your hard-earned money on Kickstarter in a matter of months.

One game I played, though, stood out as being particularly lacking.  I’m not going to give any details about it because I’m not interested in crapping on anyone’s game, ever. I’m interested in telling you what this game made me realize: games are better when they’re RPGs.

While playing this game, I was first struck by the disconnect between the theme and the mechanics. It was a set collection game, and lord knows that can be applied to just about anything, but in this case, the sets you had to collect didn’t make sense in terms of the outcome you were getting. (I know: vague phrasing is vague.) So while I was playing it, I started thinking, “I don’t feel like I’m [insert thing I was supposed to be doing here] because this just makes no sense. In that industry, that’s not how things operate.”

The mechanics, though, were pretty cool – but it was an abstract game with a theme that felt arbitrarily added to make it not abstract.  And given that, by halfway through a short game, I knew this game wasn’t for me.

Counterpose that with a game I played over the weekend that I really did enjoy (and the winner of Dice Hate Me’s 54-card contest): Matthew O’Malley’s really extraordinary, compact game, Diner.  In it, players rush to fill orders in a diner and earn tips in semi-real time (it isn’t fully real-time since you can only take an action if you have a sugar packet in front of you – and once you take the action, you have to pass it to the person on your left – but once you have it, it’s in your best interest to act as quickly as possible).  In terms of mechanics, Matthew has done one pretty cool thing with the fronts and the backs of cards being used for two very different things – but after that, it’s a set collection game, pure and simple.

But where the game succeeds – and my God does it succeed (and the folks at Dice Hate Me agree) – is in making you feel like you’re working in a diner…or so I can assume. I’ve been lucky enough to never have to smile at people while they tell me they ordered onion rings when they clearly said french fries and have the mental fortitude not to spit on their burgers.

Getting this feeling of being in the world of the game, though, is more than just mechanics and theme working well together. Plenty of people smarter than I am have written about that. What I’m interested in talking about is that getting this feeling is why it matters to have theme and mechanics work together.  When they synthesize perfectly, they help put the player into the world of the game, making the player feel like the character they’re playing.

That’s exactly what RPGs do.  When you’re playing something like the last RPG I played (the phenomenal Tremulus) you’re working to become the character, and the mechanics are there to support that.  The character creation in that game, which is fast, light, and easy, helps you get into the mindset of your character and helps you develop a sense of being part of the world of the game.

But I would argue that RPGs aren’t limited to games that get labeled as RPGs. Take Pandemic, one of my all-time favorites. Is it an RPG? No. But you get role cards, right? And if you’ve never played with someone who takes their role very seriously, you haven’t seen the game’s full potential.  The game is more fun when you treat the role card as more than just a set of special abilities.  Ideally, you want to start thinking like your character: the brash Medic who rushes into hotspots and saves the day when no one else can, the humble Researcher who works in the background and feeds information to other players, the haughty Dispatcher who knows better than the other players where they need to go.

Taking it perhaps past the point of diminishing returns, when I’m a science-y kind of role and my wife is a front-lines-y kind of role, she’s fond of yelling, “Oh, that’s easy for you to say from your ivory tower! But I’m here on the front lines watching people DIE!!!”

You don’t have to be that extreme (though it helps) – but I’d argue that players owe it to the game to try to get into the frame of mind that you’d have if you were that character.  But that’s a tip for players, and Cardboard Edison is all about the design end of things.

So, what can designers do to help players get into this mindset?  I’d argue that there are two main things – and feel free to let me know what I missed.

1. Tell a good story to start

If there’s something that you want your players to get, tell them. A good setup blurb can go a very long way to set the stage for what kind of role you want your players to adopt. Think about what would happen if, when you were getting ready to play Diner, you were read the following:

“In this game, you’re pretending to be waiters in a diner. Pull cards that have meals on them, or pull cards that have tables on them, and then earn points, which in this game, we’ll call money. The player who earns the most points – or money – at the end of the game (when two stacks of cards run out) wins.”

There are all kinds of things wrong with this blurb – which, to be completely clear, is one I just made up, not what Matthew was giving out with the game.  To start, it continually reminds the player that they’re just playing a game. The cards aren’t meals and tables; they’re cards.  The points you earn aren’t money; they’re points. And what’s worst, I think, is that you aren’t a waiter in a diner; you’re a person playing a game wherein you pretend to be a waiter.

Think about this description instead:

“It’s like this every night.  The diners rush in, the orders start rolling in, and it’s an all-out frenzy to fill the orders and make your tips. But, even the tips aren’t enough, and the other so-called waiters aren’t doing enough to keep things moving. So, you make a bet you’re sure you can win: whoever can earn the most in tips takes all of the tips.  So, claim your tables, fill the orders, and make your tips.  Because otherwise, you’re going home hungry.”

A little over the top? Sure. (Again, that’s all me, not Matthew, so any blame is squarely on my shoulders.) But here’s what that blurb does that works:

(a) It sets the stage and starts the narrative. You aren’t pretending to be in a diner; you are in the diner.  There’s no mention of cards, of points, of anything that makes it sound like a game. It sounds like the start of a story…because it is.

(b) It gives the players control. But this story isn’t just going to be one they listen to.  It’s going to be one whose outcome they determine through their actions and choices.  The players are active, instrumental, and even essential in the outcome of the narrative.

(c) It invests the players. Who hasn’t had a crappy co-worker? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to take his money if you did a better job than he could? And who wants to not earn any money for a night’s work? It gives the players two reasons to play: giving that hated co-worker his comeuppance and preserving their own livelihood.

(d) It gives the players an identity. Rather than letting them choose who they are, it’s telling them: underpaid waiters and waitresses.  That’s merely an outline, though, so it’s an outline that they can fill in for themselves.  Why do they need the money so badly? Kids to feed? A parent to care for? Board games to buy? Whatever it is, you’re now getting them to help you motivate themselves to play the game.  They can, at least in part, fuse themselves and the character.

2. Then, make sure the mechanics  simulate something you would do in that situation.

Once you’ve set the stage, you’ve got to make sure the game itself reinforces this feeling of being part of the world of the game.

In Diner, you have to act quickly. In a diner, you have to act quickly.  In Diner, if you act too slowly, other waiters will be waiting for you.  In a diner, if you act too slowly, other waiters will be waiting for you. In Diner, you need to juggle orders that you’ve agreed to take and the plates you need to fill them… I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

The theme and the mechanics match up pretty damn perfectly.  If there’s any problem with it, it’s that in a real diner, you have to juggle multiple orders at once, whereas in Diner, you have the option of taking one table at a time. But the still feels like the chaotic, stressful mess (and I mean that in only a good way) of the job that it’s simulating. And I think the reason that it works is that you’re simulating pretty closely what you’d be doing in that job.

So, the closer your mechanics can simulate what you’d do in reality, the better your player will be able to get into the role – and the more they’ll enjoy their game.

But, and this is how I’ll end the article, this is tough.  Not everything translates to a game…but most things probably do.  All professions, all hobbies, all scenarios have things that come with them.  Let’s say I’m making a game about lifeguards. They have to jump into water, get to a drowning person quickly, grab them, and get them out of the water. So, should the game be all about set collection? Not even a little bit. But would a game that values quick reaction time work well? For sure. It could be a slap-jack variation, and the person with the most saves at the end of the day wins.

The point here is this: think about your theme first and your mechanics will arise naturally out of that.  If you want to immerse your readers in the game, that, I think, is the only way to do it.

– Doug

2 thoughts on “Reflections on UnPub: Putting Players in the World of Your Game

  1. I think this is great advice all round. Setting the narrative context and objectives well up front will help frame a players decision making and agency throughout a game.

    If the mechanics and theme reflect each other well (what I like to call thematic logic) then the experience of the game past the narrative promise is both more enjoyable and more likely to feel like a successful simulation within which players are able to explore some collaborative or competitive gameplay that rings true and maintains the games engaging illusion. The key thing here is that immersive thematic games should allow agency within a convincing and thematically logical decision space that results in a good story being told.

    A good theme successfully communicated should aid interpretation of rules and gameplay choices too.

    Having said that I do believe it is possible to design a game with a well matched and immersive set of mechanics and theme from either direction – theme OR mechanics first.

    How’s this for a narrative promise for a new game I’m working on called Monstrous:

    “It is Ancient Greece. You are Greek Gods, and cranky ones at that, because the humans are not worshipping you enough.

    Zeus has decreed that the insolent humans must be punished – with hordes of monsters thrown by the hands of gods onto their cities! That should bring them back to the temples on their miserable knees.

    Zeus will crown the god who masters the monstrous mayhem and inflicts the greatest human misery in the shortest time the “MOST MONSTROUS GOD, HERDER OF HUMANS”, which is a cool title for an up and coming god.

    It’s time for the gods to play…”

    What do you expect is the main mechanic in this game? Who are the audiences? What are the players in the story and how should they act? Roughly how long is it?

    Here I absolutely started with the mechanic first, which you can hopefully infer from the narrative promise: gods (players) literally throwing monster cards at city cards to score in some way. The word ‘mayhem’ is a clue for combinational abilities on cards along with a certain amount of randomness. The ‘shortest time’ suggest it a short race.

    Into the actual gameplay, the monsters are typical greek fare. They have a range of abilities that are thematically locical in the implementation. Guess what the Gorgon does? How about the Phoenix?

    Do you expect a Kraken in the game? Of course you do. Do you expect it to be chaotic or controllable? Take a guess how it plays…

    I guess the point im making is that I now really believe you can start from either end of the Mechanic Theme spectrum and the more you bounce between those ends and connect them through your games layers the better.

    • The literal throwing of cards is a mechanic I’d love to see more of in card games – though I would worry that it would limit player interest. Some gamers (myself DEFINITELY excluded) play games to win after putting together what they think is an unbeatable strategy. Having that rest on your ability to throw cards…that might be a problem.

      That said, it’s VERY interesting to me! I’ve loved Greek myths since I was a very little kid and my dad read me the Iliad and Odyssey as bedtime stories. From there, I started reading the D’Aulaires’ beautifully-illustrated book of Greek myths, and I was totally hooked. It’s a very rich canon!

      It sounds like your game is going to encourage lighter gamers, and that’s cool! It seems like it will be rooted in and faithful to the mythology – and if you combine that with some amazing art, your game will have a place on my shelf!

      And, in terms of theme then mechanics or mechanics then theme, I think if designers are careful, they can work backwards from mechanics to theme – but you have to be careful that you aren’t forcing a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t sound like you are, but I’ve seen some games that clearly get the mechanic and then say, “Okay. Theme….uh…I guess this sort of works!”

      If you’re on Twitter, hit me up (@meltdowngames) so I can follow the progress of Monstrous! And if you’re not on Twitter, get on and start building up followers!

      Thanks for the comment!

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