Starting Point

I thought it would be best for a first post to define some of the terms I’ll be using a lot, so that my meaning is precise. I’ve left out more generic role-playing terms, like PC or NPC, because if you’ve made it this far, you probably already know that much.

  • Fun – Fun tends to be one of those words for which the definition is always a little loose. The first thing to note is that fun and good are not the same thing. Reading a trashy romance novel can be fun, but that doesn’t make it a good novel. It’s okay to have fun with diversions that aren’t good, but it’s usually easier to have fun while doing things which are. In all instances where I use the word fun in the context of gaming, what I mean is “The ability of the player to contribute meaningfully and make meaningful choices in all aspects of the game.”
  • Choice – But if that’s fun, then what counts as a choice? For our purposes, a choice must have consequences which are distinct from each other, and each of the consequences must be relevant. Choosing between two irrelevant options or between one irrelevant option and one obviously superior one aren’t choices in this sense, but rather calculations, a simple recognition of obvious superiority or indifference.
  • Meaningful – For a choice or contribution to be meaningful, its consequences have to have an effect on the situation, the setting, or both. It has to matter, or it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to be fun.
  • Min/max – An often reviled term, but one that will come up a lot, so let’s be absolutely clear on what I’m talking about. Min/maxing is the act of creating something within the rules that meets expectations, whether that’s a character, a trap, a dungeon, or a story. It’s a theory of decision-making which involves making decisions which minimize undesirable elements and maximize desirable ones.
  • Practical Optimization (PO) – This refers more specifically to character creation, and to the act of creating a character that is min/maxed for fun. A character which is optimized practically will be playable and useful in many situations.
  • Theoretical Optimization (TO) – This is the act of min/maxing a character which meets outrageous expectations, resulting in things like invulnerability, infinite abilities, or other manners of absurdity. These levels of power often compromise fun. The general rule for whether something is Theoretical or Practical is, if you would have any objections or reservations to GMing a game with the character in it, it’s theoretical.
  • Linear – A style of campaign often complained about, but often seen in early RPG video games, such as Final Fantasy. A linear campaign moves like a novel, from one plot point to another, regardless of the level of player participation.
  • Semi linear – A style of campaign which branches about, but stays around the same central theme or plot. Later RPG video games like Dragon Age have campaigns which are semi linear.
  • Sandbox – A style of campaign which does not have a plot of its own, rather telling a story about the actions of the PCs. MMORPGs are often examples of sandbox games, though the potential for complexity and richness in a tabletop role-playing environment is much greater.
  • Encounter – Any conflict or challenge which the PCs have the opportunity to overcome.
  • Adventure – A series of encounters.
  • Campaign – A series of adventures.
  • Good – Good is another one of those words which has a lot of definitions, so it will be best to define it here. A game element is good when it meets reasonable expectations. The more reasonable expectations it meets, the better it is.
  • Bad – Things which are bad then, will fail to meet reasonable expectations either through inadequacy or by actively working against them.
  • Reasonable Expectations – So what are reasonable expectations? Put simply, they are expectations for which strong arguments can be made. For example, it is reasonable to expect that a melee warrior archetype will perform well in melee. If it does not, then it is bad, because not only does it fail to meet reasonable expectations, but does so while claiming to meet the central expectation.

Hopefully these will be helpful in understanding why my assertions are what they are when it comes to design and theory, and how they fit together. Feel free to dispute any and all of these definitions, as I’m always looking for better ones.

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