Low production values are better for my enjoyment

I’ve been thinking some more about my concern in my previous post – that “high production values” are a net negative for my pleasure in rpgs. There are three reasons for this. For clarity, I will express them purely in terms of art:

First, if the art doesn’t work for me, it damages my fragile images of the imagined world. For example, anything cartoony feels wrong to me — Dungeon World, Masks, Fate… even D&D 5e is too far down this path. I’m sad to say that Silent Titans gives me trouble, too — I find Leichty’s art powerful, but too abstract and far too garish. It thus prevents me visualising the Silent Titans world.

Second, even art I like can be a problem if creates an unwelcome contrast with things I’ve brought to the table. My own rules and texts have basic typography and little or no art. I might have art printouts or a Pinterest board, but they’ll have a mishmash of artists and styles. I might have made a map, but it will look a bit shit. If there’s a game text on the table produced to a high standard, my work will look poor by comparison.

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Idea — a prize for the “Best RPG product with modest production values”

I think David Grogan is right, in that improving production values in rpgs may be antithetical to improving actual gameplay. Now, sure, people can make what they like, charge what they like, and buy what they like… but I don’t think the move towards ever-fancier production is net-improving our gameplay experiences.

So, I have a proposal — we could start an annual prize for the best rpg product with modest production values. This would reward people who come up with good ideas, good words and good game design, but don’t want to (or can’t) take the cost, delay, and risk of fancy art and layout and printing.

A few possible rules:

  • Bottom end of “modest” is “competent use of a word processor”
  • Upper end of “modest” is “POD-quality book with some spot art and maps”
    • So e.g. Patrick Stuart’s Deep Carbon Observatory might scrape in at the top (although that feels a bit like cheating as Scrap’s art has a misleading effortless quality)
  • Middle ground might be something like Archipelago III
  • No weird distribution channels e.g. “You have to get it from the author at a con”. Has to be easily available in at least one Anglosphere country

Ideologically, I’d like to make it PDF and POD-only, because it supports idea that this competition is about avoiding barriers that some creators put between (their ideas and design expertise) and (people who might use and benefit from them). But I’m not wedded to that.

Structure-preserving transformations

… following Christopher Alexander, positive change is a matter of producing “structure-preserving transformations” – starting with a core, and figuring out how to elaborate on the core in a way that produces wholeness, not mess. These possible transformations are what you’re looking for in problem-solving space: states of affairs that are near the current state of affairs but better, and achievable without destroying the dignity and cohesiveness of the existing state of affairs. Each transformation allows you to begin imagining further transformations from a new starting point. (source)

The Dungeon World core loop

What is the core loop of Dungeon World? How are the high-level events in a game supposed to occur? The RAW is not precise to the specificity demanded by my exacting analytical genius. So I will describe it here.

Firstly, all of the below happens in context of my previous description The highest-level structure of Dungeon World. This loop is inside that. Key quote:

Dungeon World is a game of rules that modify a conversation. That conversation refers to a simulated world, which is modified by the conversation and in turn shapes the space of what is reasonable for the conversation to say at any point. The world does not have any more reality than that — it doesn’t “do” anything itself, unless the (rule-governed) conversation causes an update.

The loop

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The highest-level structure of Dungeon World

This post describes how I view the highest-level structure of Dungeon World. Most of what I’ll say also applies to Apocalypse World, so I’ll mix discussion of the two with little warning.

The first level — everything is the conversation

Dungeon World is a game of rules that modify a conversation. That conversation refers to a simulated world, which is modified by the conversation and in turn shapes the space of what is reasonable for the conversation to say at any point. The world does not have any more reality than that — it doesn’t “do” anything itself, unless the (rule-governed) conversation causes an update.

For example, if the Red Knights haven’t been mentioned for six weeks of game time, they exist in a space of possibilities – they could be here, they could be there, they could be anywhere within six weeks travel of wherever they were last. The conversation can bring them into the current scene (or show their very obvious effects e.g. having burnt down a town and left their flags all over it) as long as that is consistent with the time, the distance, and whether of all of the chaos shrines in all the mountains of the world there is some plausible reason for them to show up in this one.

What the Red Knights don’t do is move around in the background, in some factual sense, even in the GM’s head. The GM may have ideas about this, but they’re merely ideas until the live conversation makes them fact. The GM’s prep is raw material, prompts, aids, but not reality.

I.e. the possibility and plausibility space is “real” beyond the conversation (and each player plus GM will be independently monitoring it to some degree) but the precise facts there are not.

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Three more notes on Apocalypse World

From Jason D’Angelo’s “Daily Apocalypse”:

Who should adjudicate whether the immediate fiction meets a player move trigger? Baker —

If there’s a genuine disagreement, like if the player suckering someone can’t see how she could miss, in fact, then she shouldn’t automatically defer to the MC. She should hold the dice. The game can’t proceed until they come to an agreement, and the rules don’t care whose view prevails. It might be hers, it might be the MC’s, but somebody has to win the other one over.

Does the MC have final say? Sure! Does the MC have sole final say? No! Everybody has final say.


Note the assumption that the players are mature adults with reasonable levels of social functioning. AW is not built for teenagers, nor for people with major social disabilities.

In any interesting game, maybe we always “play to find out”. Games just differ in what we’re finding out about. Baker —

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Enthusiastic assent is better than formal authority

Time for some fun in the post-Forge moonscape.

Jason D’Angelo wrote a very insightful analysis of part of Apocalypse World, and (in a comment) linked to Vincent Baker at  http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/466 as being something that sets up a key idea for understanding that analysis. In that post, Baker makes three claims:

    1. “Moment-to-moment assent trumps pre-agreed authority, in every case.”
    2. “Any well-designed roleplaying game will assign (at least some) authority upfront.”
    3. Some very good designers consider the assignment of authority to be the point of rpg design. I do not.”

As I find common for the Forge and its hinterlands, that sounded interesting, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. And it was clear from the first few comments that no-one else was sure either. My heart sank as a mess of confusion followed. Baker took a long time to express himself clearly; his many interlocutors took a long time to ask clear, explicit questions that squeezed said clear expression out of him. Sadly, when I go back to the Forge or its diaspora, this is my usual experience — it’s like there’s treasure there, but it’s sunk deep in a swamp.

There was a happy ending this time, though — having read the whole discussion, I think Baker’s point is fairly simple and quite useful.

What Baker is saying, put simply

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