Designing for Gamefeel

So, I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, about how to create games that feel to the player in a way that is resonant with what the character is experiencing. Dread is a great example, using the Jenga tower to generate the tension and suspense of the horror scenario. There has to be ways of handling this with just dice and cards, though, and that’s something I’ve decided to explore at more length in a blog series.

The first of that series is now available.

I am definitely interested in hearing people’s thoughts about this subject, and have a few discussion questions if you want to engage but aren’t sure where to begin.

Which games have elicited the strongest emotional responses from you?
Which games have felt the most distant from the action during play for you?
What kinds of experiences and feels are you interested in seeing further explored in this series?

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I’m interested in zones of play, and frequently think about how a d20 result is something that is read by the person closest to the die and then reported to the table. Contrast that with a card reveal action where the whole table reads the result at the same time.

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Great blog entry. This is something I think a lot about as well. I think a lot of design process relies on balancing dichotomies (simulationist vs gamist, story games vs crunchy games, etc.), which is limiting in how it influences our own physiological response to game design. What I’m getting at is that I think people will try to build games by starting from either flavor or mechanics and what you more eloquently stated with

The feel of the mechanics in play should have resonance with the actions described by that play

is that good gamefeel is when flavor is mechanics (I’ve got a rave about Dread but I’m gonna save it for the end to not derail this idea). I think this is what people in videogame circles would call verisimilitude. On the most base level we understand that rolling a die is not the same thing as swinging a sword, but because we have big fancy imagination engines in our heads we can connect the emotional response of a fictional action with a real one. When whatever random-number-generating action matches with the mental picture we have in our mind it enhances the experiences (and makes it easier to envision).

Which games have elicited the strongest emotional responses from you?

Definitely Dread with honorable mention to Deadlands (I’ve never had a chance to play but it’s a weird west game that uses poker hands to resolve conflicts).

Which games have felt the most distant from the action during play for you?

Shadowrun. SR is like the downtime and calculation of DnD times 10. Rolling a dice pool modified by 2 stats and performing the alchemy to count hits, misses, and crit fails is such a bummer of a way to resolve any conflict. Even character creation is bogged down in an esoteric half point-buy/class system that obfuscates any emotional investment because your can’t even conceive of a sentient being behind the mess of stats on the sheet.

What kinds of experiences and feels are you interested in seeing further explored in this series?

Anything that resolves conflict without using (or supplements using) dice. Dice are great tactile random number generators, but there are plenty of ways to generate random numbers. A ton on innovation has been done in ttrpgs in terms of defining how you interpret the results of dice rolls, but not enough exploration has been done regarding other tactile mechanics. It’s a large part of why I love Dread, and I think that has an amazing nugget of inspiration that ttrpg designers should pull from; board game mechanics! Things like Rondels (see Trajan or Crusaders Thy Will Be Done), Auctioning (Modern Art, Ra, QE), Playing cards (Euchre, Bridge, or Cribbage) and the hundreds of other ideas out there. That’s not to say games haven’t explored things like this (I can go into examples if people want), but they make up a tiny fraction of ttrpgs on the market.

Dread Rave: Dread is my favorite ttrpg because the mechanic is so elegant. It’s easy to explain and immediately lets you understand what’s going on. The palpable tension and anxiety of pulling a block is the exact emotional state your character is feeling when they try to survive a horrific situation. The unfortunate outcome of this is that the mechanic is inherently limiting to those with disabilities. In regards to your comment about adapting this mechanic you could certainly do it with other tools, all you need is a system that produces random results while incrementally escalating the result towards a kill state. With dice it could be as simple as rolling 1dX + 1/previous die roll and you die when you roll 2X (or whatever value adjusted to the desired lethality). With cards you can say Ace of Spades is the kill card, shuffle it into the bottom half (or third, or fourth…) of the deck and ask players to draw a card when they need to resolve a situation (this has the added benefit of giving you variable results in the drawn card’s rank and suit).

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I think there are ways of altering the reveal pacing of card draws as well, but you’re right that the nature of dice means that the people closest are the ones quickest to interact with the results. The third blog in this series will be talking more about pacing in particular and zones of play can definitely be built around that!

This is my main goal here and definitely a more concise statement of my thesis than anything I said in the blog itself :smiley:

Dice are an interesting random number generator because they’re so ubiquitous and yet I haven’t heard a lot of talk about the emotional impact of the tactile feel of rolling dice. Rolling dice feels powerful in the moment of the rolling, and then either disappointing or exhilarating in the result. Meanwhile, playing a card from a hand feels more deliberate and thoughtful, and drawing a card from a deck feels suspenseful.

Different tools available are going to be addressed in the fourth blog post in the series and will include a secret tool that I think is a real hero for any game designer and game runner: the index card. I definitely agree that board games have a world of mechanics to be raided for game play, and I love playing new board games and seeing how the mechanics work and how they generate feelings in play. They’re really neat!

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Neat.

It’s all interesting and a good set of principles. There’s one I’m curious about though, likely as someone coming out of the classic TTRPG design tradition - that’s " a complete text should provide all the tools required for play". I like rulebooks with voids in them, esoteric rather then totalizing rulesets is how I usually phrase it. Systems where there’s space for supplements or individual adventures to have alternate rules or mechanics that apply to a specific challenge, area or scene. I don’t know how much the desire for a complete text runs counter to this, maybe not at all?

I do find this a difference in the way indie/PbtA style games are often made vs. classic games - the indie games tend to include a scenario and rules in a single package with additional products made as new games. Classic games tend towards a base ruleset with supplements or adventures that offer alternate scenarios - from different locations to entire different settings that modify many core rules.

In classic games, design is often about placing rules only in places where the basic back and forth of negotiating the fictional space between players and GM are inefficient (combat or other high risk actions outside player control) - if new mechanics are needed the contract between GM and player is that they’ll be offered on an ad hoc basis (though again the adventure designer often offers them). I find this play style quite enjoyable, and balk at rule sets that include universal mechanics, pushing forward a design solution for the inevitable gaps in mechanics. This of course seems counter to the idea of the complete game - though the definition could of course leave space for intentional voids filled by GM authority and GM/player consensus or by the ad hoc rules derived from it?

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I will start by saying that fruitful voids are absolutely a required tool for play. There needs to be blank spaces that need to be filled, that each table needs to determine on their own. I’m of the belief that this void is mostly in terms of narration, but I can see what you’re saying in how it can be useful for mechanics as well.

I’ll talk a little bit about universal mechanics in my next article, but I’ll say that having some tools to provide a lose guidance for how to handle conflict outside of the main body of rules can be useful. Providing a mechanic of “if there’s disagreement, flip a coin and whoever calls it correctly is the route to proceed,” with the understanding that most of their lighter interactions won’t come down to the coin flip can be useful just as a backup tool.

We may be disagree on what kinds of actions need mechanical reinforcement, though. I believe that the focus of the game is what requires mechanical focus, not just high stakes situations. I can make a game loosely based on My Dinner With Andre, have no combat rules, no intrigue rules, but still have some rules for how the conversation between friends progresses. Almost always, there will be gaps in this of structure, but the connective tissue between these elements can be handled with a lighter touch.

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Very interesting, my interpretation of a complete text should provide all the tools required for play was along the lines of a complete text is one that, at a minimum, provides all the tools that would be required to play. That is to say, a DnD style game that did not include rules for attacking things with weapons would be incomplete in that it does not deliver a mechanical basis for completing actions one would expect to attempt in that genre/style/aesthetic. TTRPGs are, at least to me, by definition esoteric; they can’t possibly cover the gamut or actions that will spring up during play, but in order to be complete and elegant the written rules should encompass the entirety of what the designer claims they exist to simulate (for example, consider a cyberpunk game with no rules for hacking, or a wild west game with no rules for duels, these are of course blatant example, but there are plenty of games that have rules cavities)

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“Fruitful Void” was exactly the phrase I was trying to remember!

As to mechanical reinforcement, I suspect we have more in common then not. If I was writing a “Witty Conversation” game I’d also want rules around bon mots and subtle insult. Though I think here the distinction exists between genre emulation and simulation. For a genre game, and “My Dinner With Andre: The Roleplaying Adventure” would be very tight emulation indeed - the ethics of play an agreement among players to inhabit a single scenario and find the joy of play in how well they managed the emulation. Simulation, such as the classic D&D I like, has a different ethos, it wants (impossibly, unsuccessfully I’d argue) to offer a system that models anything, a whole world - almost any adventure genre.

Obviously the number of voids in a ruleset with that impossible ambition are greater then in a system like our Andre game. I think though that the mechanics may take on a different texture and purpose as well. As above Classic Ruleset mechanics seem to exist to only fill in the hard to rule on contested parts. I suspect this is intentional, or at least ingrained - the vestiges of a deep structure of wargame.

This goes beyond my initial thought, to which your response was more then adequate, and I’m still stumbling for how to express this distinction. Ultimately though, or at least where I’m currently at, is agreement with the goal of intentional mechanics, but a growing sense of what “Gamefeel” - or what I like to call Ethos of Play and Design Principles encompasses.

Looking forward to your next post.

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All this seems sensible - of course the tricky part is “what the designer claims they want to emulate”.

It seems to me there’s so much in designers assumed community of players, play style, ethos of play and such that designer assumptions almost invariably derail the designers goals. Accepting this, basically the proposition that designer control will always be limited (not GM or player control - designer) I wonder about the limits of mechanics that support a specific playstyle, I wonder about unpredictable consequences, about resisting vs. accepting hacks.

For example, Meinberg talks a bit about D&D style d20 combat - how it lack a visceral impact that Meinberg wants in hand to hand combat. That’s pretty valid, old D&D combat is highly abstracted - dare I pun “bloodless”. It feels a bit, as Meinberg again suggests, calculated, like a sniper’s shot. So the immediate thought might be: “I’ll just use multiple combat mechanics and systems that feel different! One for ranged combat, one melee and one for fisticuffs!” Yet now your game has three combat rulesets, and worse you’ve set an expectation that other kinds of combat (giant robot fisticuffs, mounted charges, dueling) should all have combat mechanics of their own. Suddenly there’s a 400 page ruleset about combat, and you’ve developed a tactical combat game.

Simple rulesets are more expansive, but yup, less evocative - theoretically one could just have one system of rolls for everything, and every challenge (yes I know - Torchbearer) and the game risks being dull. Excess Gameification.

On the other hand you’ve got that tactical combat tome - maybe you add rules that feel right for every other area of endeavour and challenge as well even. How long does it take you to play through a walk to the park let alone a wrestling match with the pigeons? How much time is spent referencing rulebooks? Excess Simulationism.

Finding that balance is hard, and made harder the broader the game’s goals.

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Very fair, to avoid falling into the pit of a Death of the Author debate, I will specify that my comment “what the designer claims they want to emulate” is whatever explicit text is written in the rulebook. If the rulebook does not contain any text along the lines of “this is a game about X and Y”, then that complicates the vision presented, or at worst is a reveal that the author did not consider the game to be about anything other than being a ruleset.

I’m not saying you’re wrong (I mostly agree with the statement) but I will refer back to my first post in this thread that thinking about game design as a balancing act between dichotomies will inherently limit what designs we create. I think Dread has outrageously expansive and evocative rules, with the caveat being they only cover situations that occur in a horror story.

I think Burning Wheel’s trait system is both more expansive and more evocative than the systems of DnD; by allowing you to tag basically anything (from “100-yard stare” to “big hat”) it allows more flexibility in what you can bring to conflict resolution without trying to be universal in the way DnD tries to be (for example, DnDs skill list is so clogged with minutia because it is inherently limiting in what actions are available and thus how it forces its players to approach problems). Compared to BW which says “you’ve got a background in sailing? Ok yeah, that totally means you get some mechanical advantage to dealing with ropes”.

Of course that’s not to say simpler is always more evocative. Finding mechanics that satisfy both is way harder than finding mechanics that only satisfy one, and those mechanics will be inherently more restrictive and exclusionary because they are more specific (for example, Dread is inherently limiting to physically disabled players)

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It again strikes me - and I say this without malice or judgment on either tradition - this is a gulf between classic design and indie design. The indie games I am most inspired by are “small” - something like Night Witches (I haven’t read Dread, but I’ll believe you about it) where the genre does a lot of the lifting both with player expectation and the narrow scope allows rules to be perfect for just the one thing, the one scenario. This is great when one can manage it well, and yeah a concise explanation of intended play helps there. I think it’s much less successful and much harder in “big” games - hence the greater importance of rules for crisis situations and rule voids.

Thus I don’t follow with your Burning Wheel example, though I don’t deny it does this for some people. My impression from your example is that it would lean too far into the gamification world for me. E.G. The need to have “big hat” as a tag to do big hat things throws player problem solving back to their sheets (though inventory/supply does the same thing in a classic game) and more importantly to the mechanics.

So say we had a big hat situation - the player wants to scoop up fish in a pond - darting minnows. Obviously a big hat would be helpful for this. In a classic game the hat might be an inventory item, it might be minimally described, and it might not even be an inventory item - clothing doesn’t tend to be in systems with tight encumbrance rules (and this sort of thing is the source of one of those silly grognard debates: “do suits of armor come with helmets?”). The availability, suitability and volume of the hat would be briefly discussed - dependent on established setting and character fiction - in a setting where everyone wears turbans - no big hats, a character that always talks about thier outrageous hair - no big hat, pseudo Renaissance faux France - big hats abound. A GM at a table with good trust between the players might say yes - you can catch 3D6 minnows a turn with your big hat, might say nah, your hat is too clumsy to catch the fast minnows, might create a DEX test or something. In the Burning Wheel version I presume that much depends on the character having a pre-picked “Big Hat” tag - and more tellingly that untagged things aren’t up for negotiation - because everything can be tagged. Even with the Big Hat tag one falls into using the general test mechanic, there’s less space for a no needed test result (it’s minnows in a pool - it shouldn’t be hard) because there’s an assumption of tags offering bonuses to resolving things. The general test mechanic also well be its nature be mechanically bland - a problem Meinberg aims at resolving.

I agree skill systems in classic games are also problem - and for much the same reason - I like to limit them to fairly broad categories for things that cannot be reasoned through by the players or and GM (“Sleight of Hand” or “Tinkering” instead of “Pick Locks”) rather then throwing everything to a “Skill Test” in the way say 5E (and contemporary trad games more generally) manages to. Note as well that with those skill heavy systems the same problem of exclusion and presumed lack of competence in related areas can be a big issue - if it’s not on the skill list you can’t do it.

This is of course off the general topic. Call me mostly convinced - but still leery of the ability to hit that medium of well defined play and gamefeel promoting rules in a “Big” system.

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very fair points, I’ll concede Burning Wheel is not a perfect example of what we are talking about, but I will say the tag system is more flexible than you assume. Yes, having the “big hat” tag will provide you a bonus to the scenario provided, but not having the tag is not a no-go. If you narratively position that your character had procured a big hat, you could convince the GM that they can use that hat for a one-time bonus, and if you consistently rely on it, there are mechanics that let players nominate you for the “big hat” tag at the end of any session, at which point you get more control over when you can invoke the tag.

To bring it back on topic, I think BW has better GameFeel than DnD because while its mechanics are less dense, they are also more rigorously defined in what they are meant to simulate (both by explicit author writing and in what “flavor” the mechanics are given). You could can run a game involving a group of characters travelling a fantasy world and building bonds to achieve some lofty quest in either game, but BW will do it better (opinion) at the expense of doing less things than DnD (ignoring how well DnD does those additional things).

I think there is something to be discussed in how much lifting “genre” or flavor does towards reinforcing mechanics. If Night Witches was pitched as a game for playing as pilots (no era specified) it would do what it was designed to do just as well but would be more difficult for players to “tune in” to the ideal play style.

Perhaps the difference between indie and classic design is how much genre is defined versus implied by the mechanics? Night Witches lays out what it’s about very explicitly, which does wonders for helping players enter the desired headspace. DnD and BW rather define their setting through the content. DnD definitely assumes the name is doing a lot of heavy lifting and BW’s rules only imply (there are rules for hitting people with medieval weapons, casting spells, and creating characters of different fantasy races), but I don’t recall it outright saying “this is a game for LotR style adventures” beyond listing LotR and other related stories in its bibliography.

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Back to the original topic, I LOVE this idea! I really enjoy Dread for this reason. I would love to try more games with this sort of feedback loop. I have yet to try Dust Devils, I think the idea of using poker hands as the mechanics to a western rpg is genious! I haven’t played it but Ten Candles is a fascinating concept using candles to represent life force and how much time is left.

I think examples of these where they still use dice are Mothership and the San Jenaro Digest 1 game Clerics. Mothership because of the stress -> panic feedback loop. The more stress the character has the more likely they are to panic and you feel this as a player. Clerics because of one simple rule, whenever the PC’s as a player try to boss around the NPCs (the rest of the party) because the clerics are the “wisest”, the rest of the party is to act deliberately opposite. It really gives the feel that the clerics really are the only clever characters and the DM is a dick :stuck_out_tongue:

I think a good example of using improv rules to give a specific game feel is A Penny for your thoughts. I haven’t played this one either but the idea of giving improv prompts to recover your memory is inspired.

Personally, I would most like to see more games with gambling or bidding mechanics. What’s riskier than risking your life on an adventure?

I am currently designing a game about old west using the old west gambling game Faro. It is my first attempt at something like this. The idea is that going west in that time was a gamble thus the gambling game mechanic supports that feel. Faro by itself is a dull game like roulette but the gambling chips are the metacurrency for the story. If you lose all your chips, your character dies. If the player doubles their chips they get to dictate their happy ending. If the deck runs out and the players are somewhere in between they get varied success / failure and varied agency in finishing their character’s story.

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Oh that is a great idea! I will add it to the list of scene types to cover in the second half of the series.

My next article in this series is out!

This one talks about the concept of modality. Modality is not something I hear discussed too much these days, so this is largely an introduction to the concept. Fortunately, explaining why it is important to good gamefeel is a relatively short discussion, so I’m able to fit that in as well.

Discussion Questions
What sort of modal game experiences have you most enjoyed?
What games with nonmodal rules have felt like the biggest stretch to you?
Do you often feel like you have trouble knowing how long to talk at the table?

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Which games have felt the most distant from the action during play for you?

Old Deadlands had combat mechanics that sometimes required seven rolls with different types of die and numbers just for one action. I had to abandon that game, and that was under the period where I was really resistant to heavy systems.

Fiasco have a random generated ending, and I never felt that the randomized ending seldom mirrored what actually happened during the session. In some sessions, quite the opposite actually.

Dogs in the Vineyard. The die mechanics is too slow and calculating and breaks up the dialogue too much. That said, the mechanics of making all dogs (type of inquisitor) be like assholes is brilliant, but that’s more a case of emergent complexity (when all components forms one result) rather than what happens in the moment - in the system - enforces the how the game feels.

Which games have elicited the strongest emotional responses from you?

Psychodrame is using Dogs mechanics, but in a better way. The cards (instead of dice) are hidden, which makes the dialogue flow better, because the opponent can’t peak and the dice and do tactical calculations. Another thing is that you don’t use things that defines you, but feelings - which are easier to play out. I highly recommend to try this game.

Don’t Rest Your Head actually frightened me; I mean, them mechanics themselves did that! It’s using a form of loss aversion, and I wished more games did that. Dread is using it, in a way. Depends on how much you want to bend the definition, because the Jenga tower is more about the tension of drawing than the tension of making a choice, as in DRYH.

Montsegur 1244 is a game I haven’t played through, but I heard that people sink immensely into the role and thinks that death is a better way than abandon their religion … and this from secular Scandinavians. It’s a game without resolution mechanics, and I could tell that they followed the structure of how to achieve flow/immersion - based on Nordic LARP theory. The game pumped information to the players that they had to interpret based on their characters. By doing that, you’ll get immerse into the game.

Svart av kval, vit av lust (Black of Despair, White of Lust) is a Swedish game that is what Vampire should have been. The mechanics consists of letting your beast go to solve problems, and to sometimes obey the beast’s inner desires (suggested from other participants). The mechanics creates a “If I do what I want, I will tread a path of blood” feel, and I even had one guy screaming “Fuck you” (both upset and amused) to the rest of the participants for the choice he had to make.

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That’s a great list of games! I’ve never even heard of Svart av kval before, I might have to try a find a copy of that.

I’m an especially big fan of how Monstegur and its descendants works with the concept of a set ending, an inescapable fate. It helps to steer behavior before hand and guide the play towards an ending that everyone has already bought in to.

The third article in the series is now out!

What games have you played that have had simple but fun mechanics?
What games have you played where complex rules made the play more fun?
Have you played any games with explicit phrasing mechanics?

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Short follow up expanding the scope of pacing from the scene level to the meta-scene level!

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