Pig-faced Orcs: What designers can learn from old-school role-playing games

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Can designers learn anything from old-school role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller? Sure! …

Can designers learn anything from old-school role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller? Sure!

Designers of all kinds are getting comfortable applying principles of game design to non-game applications. Many of those principles date back to the early days of role-playing games, from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's first edition of D&D in 1974 to less well-known games like Runequest and Traveller. Game designers have been revisiting these early works and extracting wisdom from them, and I'd like to bring some of those lessons to the user experience community.

In this deliciously nerdy talk, I'll present user-experience lessons from old-school gaming, including the role of showmanship in constructing an experience, how imperfections and missing pieces can increase engagement, and the difference between sandbox and railroad designs.

Talk given as IA Summit 11 in Denver CO.

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  • Hi. I’m James Reffell. I’m a designer. This talk is “Pig-faced orcs: can designers learn anything from old-school role-playing games?” I hope we can, otherwise this is going to be real short.\n
  • First of all, this is not a gamification talk. There will no talk of badges, points, leaderboards, or anything of that sort. I’m not even going to talk about flow. Those concepts are interesting, but they mostly come from a very specific subset of games. And those were not my favorite games, even as a kid.\n
  • I liked Dungeons & Dragons. Most D&D players (at least ones my age) can tell you a story of how they discovered the games. You can ask me that one tonight at the bar. What I will say is that while I had no idea I was going to be a designer when I grew up, many of the things that made D&D fun for me were very ... designey. Like obsessively making elaborate maps on grid paper.\n
  • Quick and totally incomplete history of pen & paper RPGs. Wargaming around for a long time. In the 70s, some folks got bored & changed a few things: focus on individual, non-military units, fantasy elements. Realized they had something different, packaged it up. More or less BOOM. Explosion, huge cultural impact, co-evolution w/ computer games.\n
  • Pig-faced orcs. Theme for the talk. Orcs, from Tolkien. Usually portrayed as monstrous humans like in the movies. But in older D&D modules you often saw them illustrated w/ pig faces. Apparently a miscommunication between Gary Gygax and the artist, now kind of symbolic of the earlier age. \n
  • Recently a few gamers have been delving into what made the originals interesting. Maybe some things that work better (or differently) from what has come since. Old school. And the more I read and thoughts about it, the more some of that seemed to apply to design as well. So here goes.\n
  • I’m going to propose 8 ideas. They start pretty concrete and move into the fuzzy. I’ll talk about how they are used in RPGs, and how they could be used in design.\n
  • Dice. Miniatures. Graph paper. Maps. Screens for the game master. These are all tools for games, and they all have their official purpose -- creating randomness, simulating exploration, visualizing combat. But there’s another purpose. They give you something to futz with. (Hand up who has tried to build a dice tower?)\n
  • So pop psychology. Having things to manipulate -- particularly physical things with texture & visual interest you can look at and hold and move around -- helps concentration. It has intrinsic aesthetic value. It also gives a feeling of control. It gives you something to do during down moments. And it’s something traditional software usually lacks.\n
  • There are some examples. Random number generation my wiggling the mouse -- strangely satisfying. Totally equivalent to rolling dice, maybe not quite as much fun as that. Mobile devices are a better fit for this -- any app that you need to shake, wave, wiggle, or whatever, is a god fit. Think about incorporating twitchy movement into your designs.\n
  • Those are a good start. But they’re missing two things. 1. Ongoing, idle manipulation while doing other tasks. 2. Texture. When we start seeing more touch UIs with feedback (video games have been doing this here and there) we me have something.\n
  • Here’s Gary Gygax. “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.” What’s he saying? Obviously dice have a functional purpose (creating randomness). But sometimes -- and maybe in some sense every time -- a DM rolls the dice, it’s also to build tension. Especially when the DM doesn’t tell you why she’s rolling it. That’s showmanship.\n
  • So I talked about dice as something to fiddle with. But there’s another reason for all the stuff -- miniatures, dice, screens, etc. A good DM can use these to enhance the experience. Brenda Laurel has talked about computers as theater in a theoretical sense, but I think we can learn from the tricks of theater. The cheats. Showmanship.\n
  • This is basically UI fanciness territory, but specifically the UI fanciness that adds drama. Let’s talk about Etsy. I love Etsy. But the newsletter was a little too frequent. So I unsubscribed. Sad kitty. Sad kitty builds tension. \n
  • And when you DO unsubscribe, you get Paul Young. Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you. That’s drama! Well, at least pathos. But they key is if you want to embrace showmanship, you can’t be afraid of being a little silly.\n
  • So, dice again. What are they for? In a basic sense, resolving actions that have a chance to succeed, just like in any game of chance. But that’s in some ways the least interesting use of chance in role-playing games.\n
  • This is the famous Harlot Table. [Explain Harlot Table.] So, this is iconic and hilarious, but it’s also representative of a core concept -- using the dice to generate story. Obviously a story with a brazen strumpet wandering into it will be different from a story with a aged madam. \n
  • Maybe a better example is the rumor table from B2: Keep on the Borderlands. This was explicitly a training module for new GMs and players. Are it suggests that you arm the players with a random selection of rumors before they start. Some of the rumors are true, some false. Depending on what you roll, the characters may react very differently ...\n
  • So, software? I don’t have a lot of examples, but here’s one idea. A lot of sites that involve user-created content give folks cues or hints to get them started. Adding a visibly random element might be entertaining. This table was posted by Zak Smith to get other folks started writing blog posts. Now, this is a D&D context, but you can imagine ...\n
  • Minigames. All roleplaying games basically have subgames -- sometimes clearly defined as such, sometimes more fuzzy -- that you can play.\n
  • Traveller is great here. Character generation is it’s own game. Your character can die before you’re “really” playing! Trading is a game. Different kinds of combat (starships, on planet, mass) are games. World creation is a game.\n
  • 37 Signals had a bit in their iPhone app where there was a setup delay. So they let you play Tic-Tac-Toe. Now, that’s cute, but it’s not really related to the larger goal. The first mini-games in RPGs are usually character generation, so it makes sense that the closest cousins in our domains are usually signup & portfolio creation.\n
  • Sandboxes games and railroad games. These are concepts that span all sorts of games, they come up a lot in video games. But that can get hung up on technical limitations, so let’s stick with pen & paper. \n
  • Sandboxes. The game designer creates an area to explore, and maybe some mild motivation. The players choose what to do first and how to do it. Plot emerges from play. \nRailroad. There is an overarching plot. The players make choices within that, but the game designer makes sure they experience the main points and usually in a set order.\n
  • This one is less a pronouncement than an analytical framework. Think about what you’re designing and break it into sandboxes and railroads. Take e-commerce. Someone is browsing -- they may have a vague idea what they want to buy, but they’re more than happy to look at other things, comparison shop, research, get distracted. Sandbox!\n
  • But eventually they’ve got some items in their shopping cart and want to check out. Boom! Railroad the crap out of them. Lead them by the nose. Eliminate distractions. It’s not just about efficiency -- you have a narrative (in this case “you are happy with your purchases and trust us to ship them to you”) and you’re going to give them that story.\n
  • OK. So the thing about the old-school games is that they were originally built by hobbyists for other hobbyists. It showed. There were mistakes, inconsistencies. Game balance was a concern but there wasn’t really any way to achieve it and in any case that never stood in the way \n
  • James Maliszewski wrote an essay called “Stop Making Sense.” He talked about how when he was first creating worlds, he strove for complete order, perfection, explaining everything. Leave no holes. But he’s found that the holes and the things that didn’t quite make sense gave him room for continued creativity.\n\n
  • Expand that from a single person creating to a community and I think it holds. If we, as designers, leave some features out (for a while), leave some messiness and inconsistency, it gives our users room to co-create with us. That’s how we got hashtags and retweeting. You can always go back and fix, but sometimes you don’t need to.\n
  • This one is kind of hard to explain now, because D&D (and its successor like WoW) have been such a cultural force over the past few decades that a lot of these things have been diffused. But at the time, this stuff was a complete hodge podge of Tolkien, Burroughs, Leiber, adventure movies, actual medieval history, mythology. Total mishmash.\n
  • This is similar to the “leave gaps” point, but it’s not just cramming things in. It’s putting in seemingly disparate elements and watching them gel, like magic. This is why I’m not really persuaded by the metaphor purists -- I find it kind of charming when real-world metaphors mix with purely digital ones. As long as it works, throw it in.\n
  • So it’s really important that characters can die. Some games have other kinds of risk, but in old school RPGS, death is usually the big one. Characters die. That adds spice, it gives the stories meaning, it makes for legendary action. Game I remember the best was a Star Wars game. One shot. My Han Solo-ish character heroically sacrificed himself to save the group. \n
  • Now, in design, some sorts of risk are unacceptable. It’s not acceptable to lose your users’ data. Or expose it to other people w/out permission. But without ANY risk, sterility. So, how do you as a designer, expose your users to “good” (fun, narrative building) risk, but not “bad” (unfun, cynicism building) risk? I haven’t the foggiest. I’m working on this one. :)\n
  • So, here are my 8 points. If you want to start using them in your work, obviously the thing to do is get a D8 and rolle to see where to start.\n
  • Thanks to everyone who helped me put this together, and special thanks to Gary and all the other creators who have inspired me.\n
  • \n

Transcript

  • 1. Pig-faced Orcs Can designers learn anything from old-school roleplaying games?James ReffellIA Summit 2011March 3rd 2011
  • 2. GamificationThis is not a gamification talk. There will no talk of badges, points, leaderboards, or anything of that sort. I’m not even going totalk about flow. Those concepts are interesting, but they mostly come from a very specific subset of games. And those werenot my favorite games, even as a kid.
  • 3. awesome map i drew first convention badgeI liked Dungeons & Dragons. Most D&D players (at least ones my age) can tell you a story of how they discovered thegames. You can ask me that one tonight at the bar. What I will say is that while I had no idea I was going to be a designerwhen I grew up, many of the things that made D&D fun for me were very ... designey. Like obsessively making elaboratemaps on grid paper.
  • 4. Dungeons & Traveller Runequest Chainmail (1971) Gygax & Perren Dragons (1974) (1977) (1978) Gygax & Arneson Stafford & Perrin Stafford & PerrinQuick and totally incomplete history of pen & paper RPGs. Wargaming around for a long time. In the 70s, some folks gotbored & changed a few things: focus on individual, non-military units, fantasy elements. Realized they had somethingdifferent, packaged it up. More or less BOOM. Explosion, huge cultural impact, co-evolution w/ computer games.
  • 5. Pig-faced orcs. Theme for the talk. Orcs, from Tolkien. Usually portrayed as monstrous humans like in themovies. But in older D&D modules you often saw them illustrated w/ pig faces. Apparently a miscommunicationbetween Gary Gygax and the artist, now kind of symbolic of the earlier age.
  • 6. Recently a few gamers have been delving into what made the originals interesting. Maybe some things that workbetter (or differently) from what has come since. Old school. And the more I read and thoughts about it, the moresome of that seemed to apply to design as well. So here goes.
  • 7. Give them something to Use sandboxes & railroads. manipulate. Preserve inconstancies & Embrace showmanship. messiness. Use randomness to build Steal from everywhere. story. Create minigames. Enable risk-taking.I’m going to propose 8 ideas. They start pretty concrete and move into the fuzzy. I’ll talk about how they areused in RPGs, and how they could be used in design.
  • 8. Give them something to manipulate.Dice. Miniatures. Graph paper. Maps. Screens for the game master. These are all tools for games, and they allhave their official purpose -- creating randomness, simulating exploration, visualizing combat. But there’s anotherpurpose. They give you something to futz with. (Hand up who has tried to build a dice tower?)
  • 9. Give them something to manipulate.So pop psychology. Having things to manipulate -- particularly physical things with texture & visual interest you canlook at and hold and move around -- helps concentration. It has intrinsic aesthetic value. It also gives a feeling ofcontrol. It gives you something to do during down moments. And it’s something traditional software usually lacks.
  • 10. Give them something to manipulate.There are some examples. Random number generation my wiggling the mouse -- strangely satisfying. Totallyequivalent to rolling dice, maybe not quite as much fun as that. Mobile devices are a better fit for this -- any app thatyou need to shake, wave, wiggle, or whatever, is a god fit. Think about incorporating twitchy movement into yourdesigns.
  • 11. Give them something to manipulate.Those are a good start. But they’re missing two things. 1. Ongoing, idle manipulation while doing other tasks. 2.Texture. When we start seeing more touch UIs with feedback (video games have been doing this here and there) weme have something.
  • 12. Embrace showmanship. “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.”Here’s Gary Gygax. “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.” What’s he saying? Obviously dicehave a functional purpose (creating randomness). But sometimes -- and maybe in some sense every time -- a DM rollsthe dice, it’s also to build tension. Especially when the DM doesn’t tell you why she’s rolling it. That’s showmanship.
  • 13. Embrace showmanship.So I talked about dice as something to fiddle with. But there’s another reason for all the stuff -- miniatures, dice,screens, etc. A good DM can use these to enhance the experience. Brenda Laurel has talked about computers astheater in a theoretical sense, but I think we can learn from the tricks of theater. The cheats. Showmanship.
  • 14. Embrace showmanship.This is basically UI fanciness territory, but specifically the UI fanciness that adds drama. Let’s talk about Etsy. I loveEtsy. But the newsletter was a little too frequent. So I unsubscribed. Sad kitty. Sad kitty builds tension.
  • 15. Embrace showmanship.And when you DO unsubscribe, you get Paul Young. Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you. That’sdrama! Well, at least pathos. But they key is if you want to embrace showmanship, you can’t be afraid of being a littlesilly.
  • 16. Use randomness to build story.So, dice again. What are they for? In a basic sense, resolving actions that have a chance to succeed, just like in anygame of chance. But that’s in some ways the least interesting use of chance in role-playing games.
  • 17. Use randomness to build story.This is the famous Harlot Table. [Explain Harlot Table.] So, this is iconic and hilarious, but it’s also representative of acore concept -- using the dice to generate story. Obviously a story with a brazen strumpet wandering into it will bedifferent from a story with a aged madam.
  • 18. Use randomness to build story.Maybe a better example is the rumor table from B2: Keep on the Borderlands. This was explicitly a training module fornew GMs and players. Are it suggests that you arm the players with a random selection of rumors before they start.Some of the rumors are true, some false. Depending on what you roll, the characters may react very differently ...
  • 19. Use randomness to build story. 1--Think of one of your players, describe his/her impact on your game, what he/she does, how his/ her presence or absence affects your GMing (if at all). What you expect to happen when s/hes around, what kind of PCs s/he chooses, etc. 2--Add something to the wiki then explain why it was influential enough to you that you added it. 3--Four things you wish you want more of in your campaign, four things you wish you had less of. Or, if you can;t do that, tell us why you cant. Is your campaign perfect? Rock--tell us why you think its humming so well. 4--Compare your favorite moment as a player to your favorite moment as a GM. 5--Write up a monster/trap combination. Neither the monster nor the trap must be original, but the combo must be interesting. 6--Give us a spell. Just one. Or more if youre hardcore. 7--Dragons. Seriously, how often do you use dragons? Did they work the way they were supposed to when you did? Were your players scared? How did it go? 8--Describe your local area, gamerwise--is their a local game store? Where do your players come from? Do you want more players? Are they your friends? If you play with strangers, who are these people? Where do they come from? 9--Google up a random mini, then describe this fellow or lass as an NPC. Give us some hooks for him or her.So, software? I don’t have a lot of examples, but here’s one idea. A lot of sites that involve user-created content give 10--Pull a gamebook off your shelf. Drink as much alcohol as you can. Generate a PC for that gamefolks cues or hints to get them started. Adding a visibly random element might be entertaining. This table was posted and liveblog your emotional rollercoaster as you create the person.by Zak Smith to get other folks started writing blog posts. Now, this is a D&D context, but you can imagine ...
  • 20. Create minigames.Minigames. All roleplaying games basically have subgames -- sometimes clearly defined as such, sometimes morefuzzy -- that you can play.
  • 21. Create minigames. Character Trading Ship combat generationTraveller is great here. Character generation is it’s own game. Your character can die before you’re “really” playing!Trading is a game. Different kinds of combat (starships, on planet, mass) are games. World creation is a game.
  • 22. Create minigames.37 Signals had a bit in their iPhone app where there was a setup delay. So they let you play Tic-Tac-Toe. Now, that’scute, but it’s not really related to the larger goal. The first mini-games in RPGs are usually character generation, so itmakes sense that the closest cousins in our domains are usually signup & portfolio creation.
  • 23. Use sandboxes and railroads.Sandboxes games and railroad games. These are concepts that span all sorts of games, they come up a lot in videogames. But that can get hung up on technical limitations, so let’s stick with pen & paper.
  • 24. Use sandboxes and railroads.Sandboxes. The game designer creates an area to explore, and maybe some mild motivation. The players choosewhat to do first and how to do it. Plot emerges from play.Railroad. There is an overarching plot. The players make choices within that, but the game designer makes sure theyexperience the main points and usually in a set order.
  • 25. Use sandboxes and railroads.This one is less a pronouncement than an analytical framework. Think about what you’re designing and break it intosandboxes and railroads. Take e-commerce. Someone is browsing -- they may have a vague idea what they want tobuy, but they’re more than happy to look at other things, comparison shop, research, get distracted. Sandbox!
  • 26. Use sandboxes and railroads.But eventually they’ve got some items in their shopping cart and want to check out. Boom! Railroad the crap out ofthem. Lead them by the nose. Eliminate distractions. It’s not just about efficiency -- you have a narrative (in this case“you are happy with your purchases and trust us to ship them to you”) and you’re going to give them that story.
  • 27. Preserve inconsistencies and messiness.OK. So the thing about the old-school games is that they were originally built by hobbyists for other hobbyists. Itshowed. There were mistakes, inconsistencies. Game balance was a concern but there wasn’t really any way toachieve it and in any case that never stood in the way
  • 28. Preserve inconsistencies and messiness. “Every rough edge I pound smooth is one I cant use later in order to prick my imagination.” “Give me a sketchy, hodgepodge setting with lots of holes and unmapped areas and incoherence and Ill give you a campaign to remember.”James Maliszewski wrote an essay called “Stop Making Sense.” He talked about how when he was first creatingworlds, he strove for complete order, perfection, explaining everything. Leave no holes. But he’s found that the holesand the things that didn’t quite make sense gave him room for continued creativity.
  • 29. HASHTAGS?!?!Expand that from a single person creating to a community and I think it holds. If we, as designers, leave some featuresout (for a while), leave some messiness and inconsistency, it gives our users room to co-create with us. That’s how wegot hashtags and retweeting. You can always go back and fix, but sometimes you don’t need to.
  • 30. Steal from everywhere.This one is kind of hard to explain now, because D&D (and its successor like WoW) have been such a cultural forceover the past few decades that a lot of these things have been diffused. But at the time, this stuff was a completehodge podge of Tolkien, Burroughs, Leiber, adventure movies, actual medieval history, mythology. Total mishmash.
  • 31. Steal from everywhere.This is similar to the “leave gaps” point, but it’s not just cramming things in. It’s putting in seemingly disparate elementsand watching them gel, like magic. This is why I’m not really persuaded by the metaphor purists -- I find it kind ofcharming when real-world metaphors mix with purely digital ones. As long as it works, throw it in.
  • 32. Enable risk-taking. (Carefully.)So it’s really important that characters can die. Some games have other kinds of risk, but in old school RPGS, death isusually the big one. Characters die. That adds spice, it gives the stories meaning, it makes for legendary action. GameI remember the best was a Star Wars game. One shot. My Han Solo-ish character heroically sacrificed himself to savethe group.
  • 33. Enable risk-taking. (Carefully.)Now, in design, some sorts of risk are unacceptable. It’s not acceptable to lose your users’ data. Or expose it to otherpeople w/out permission. But without ANY risk, sterility. So, how do you as a designer, expose your users to“good” (fun, narrative building) risk, but not “bad” (unfun, cynicism building) risk? I haven’t the foggiest. I’m working onthis one. :)
  • 34. The ideas. Give them something to Use sandboxes & railroads. manipulate. Preserve inconstancies & Embrace showmanship. messiness. Use randomness to build Steal from everywhere. story. Create minigames. Enable risk-taking.So, here are my 8 points. If you want to start using them in your work, obviously the thing to do is get a D8 and rolle tosee where to start.
  • 35. Thanks, Gary. Gary Gygax (1938-2008)James Reffell@jreffelldesigncult.orgjames.reffell@gmail.com
  • 36. Image credits CC Tracy Lee http://www.flickr.com/photos/tracyleephoto/5442965871/ © Otherworld miniatures http://www.otherworld.me.uk/ CC Scott Akerman http://www.flickr.com/photos/sterlic/5364706165/ CC Dave White http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrdestructicity/5028309972/ CC Alan De Smet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gary_Gygax_Gen_Con_2007.JPG © Elena Hill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zak_Smith.jpg © XKCD http://xkcd.com/393/