Applying the MDA model to TRPGs

Branching the topic out of Thinking about game design: questions and statements

I assumed that I had understood LeBlanc terminology ( Mechanics, Dynamics , and Aesthetics ), but it seems that these do not mean how we generally use these terms.

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So Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek says:

Mechanics describes the particular components of the
game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.
Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the
mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’
outputs over time.
Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses
evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game

Could you name actual things and/or processes happening in TRPGs as an example for these terms?

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I’m not an expert when it comes to MDA. Listen to his speech and read the paper and you will have the same base of knowledge as me. :slight_smile: But I wonder what kind of things/processes that you had in mind. Because for such a (generalized) high concept model as MDA is, it’s weird to ask to to explain the terminology by exemplify with details.

There is a danger in starting to declare differences between X and Y when it comes to these kinds of abstract models. The fundaments in the human psyche doesn’t change just because you play a digital game or a boardgame, or even doing the dishes. MDA can describe doing the dishes; I can’t describe that activity through specific TTRPG processes.

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We are learning machines, and we get dopamines from learning. When we understand something, possibly to overcome an obstacle, we feel good because of the dopamine release in our brains. Too easy, and we’ll get bored. Too hard, and we’ll get frustrated. All of these are emotional responses.

There are several ways of explaining how we learn stuff, but a popular high level concept model is the game/feedback loop. I first came about that with Perron’s The Heuristic Circle of Gameplay, but for this post I will just link to Daniel Cook’s game loop.

As you can see, you can’t have feedback and mental model (aethetics - WHY)—an interpretation of what your perceive, that together creates an emotional response—without action (dynamics - HOW) and rules (mechanics - WHAT). When first perceiving a game (or, more generally, a task), we can rarely start at the mechanics. Instead …

… we get a game pitch, which we combine with previous experiences that creates our expectations. Thinking that doing the dishes is boring … or it’s meditative. Pitch and expectations then forms our thoughts when we take in the rules, because we interpret the rules through that “filter”.

However, as a game designer, you normally start with an idea of what you would like, create mechanics and then see what kind of emotional response you get from the dynamics (interaction) between all components of the game (may it be participants, rules, or world). I made several games that taught me how to play them, because I broke into uncharted territory of how to play roleplaying games. I also had to start to think about WHY they are fun, in order to find my target audience for them.

Because it’s important, which is basically what MDA is all about for me, to realize that a clear majority of players will see your creation from another standpoint. That’s why it’s so important to playtest, not only to see if the dynamics creates the correct emotions (from learning), but to see how the players perceive your game to begin with. It’s also important to acknowledge that players aren’t there because of the mechanics, but what the game stands for, and that’s how you should pitch/explain your game.

A pause from life to seek enlightenment;
soothing splashing and hand to eye coordination;
do the dishes!


Some, more famous, examples: Sid Meier realized that his world building tool were funnier to play around with than his actual game, and he therefor released just the world building tool, as Sim City. Diablo were first going to be turn based, but when they tested the game with a real time version of it, they discovered a much more fun game play.


Even generic games like Gurps or Fate initially sell themselves with an aesthetic idea: “Play any story with one system” is an aesthetic promise (that no game can fulfill but nonetheless many make, explicitly or implicitly) that players engage with before they know anything about the game’s specific mechanics.