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Speculative Physics

Planning for Failure

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
May 20,2004


Planning for Failure

One of the most unique features of RPGs is that they are both structure and media. In computer science this relates RPGs to the often complex field of mobile code. A game is sent out, with no adjustment into an uncertain world. Will it work? Or will it crash? Business concerns largely aside, the purpose of a game is to be played, ideally it will be played as designed. However, this is rarely an ideal world.

Transmission Errors

The first danger an RPG will encounter is that of transmission errors. In software these are typically due to unreliable channels, but nearly all errors can be discovered and removed. In the process by which a game leaves the designer and encounters a novel player, far more potential for miscommunication presents itself.

In each step, from idea to text, from text to finished work, and from the game to the mind of the potential player, there are numerous possible errors. Having a good editor can help, good graphic design is also important. The accessibility and clarity of the writing are also important. Even a discerning and open-minded reader can help immensely. But ultimately these things can only reduce the number of errors, not eliminate them.

Fixing It: Just as in the electronic case the best defense against transmission errors is redundancy. This is the major reason why examples can be so useful. With several pieces reinforcing the same concept or element, a single error, whether typographic, thematic, or interpretive, will be voted out by its counter-parts. Competing with redundancy is the advantage of brevity. Shorter more compact designs are less susceptible to transmission error, due to the reduced room for error, and the greater resources which can be applied to enhance clarity and correctness.

Counting on It: The most direct way to incorporate transmission errors into a design is to ensure there is no complete message to become corrupted. Instead this design approach uses the transmission process to complete a nearly finished design. Vagueness is far more likely to reach the player untainted, and the player can then be made to put the pieces together as desired, in the simple act of learning the game.

Replication Errors

The second endemic error in transmitting a structure to a remote user is that the message will change over time, simply due to errors in replicating the original message when needed. This slow mutation is much more significant in RPGs than in computer software, albeit present in both.

The typical mutation of an RPG comes from each session being played based on the recollections of the preceding sessions. Since these recollections consist of the most common game elements encountered there is a tendency for the game to morph more closely to those elements, and at the same time less common elements will often be remembered incorrectly, causing persistent changes as they are used in later sessions.

Fixing It: To avoid replication errors a different sort of redundancy is needed, not in explanation, but in terms of concepts and elements. A game which has a variety of distinct subsystems will often find those disparate pieces mutating wildly after only a few sessions. Keeping a focused design can eliminate these problems, and allow the different elements to reinforce each other during play. An alternative to reinforcement, is to ensure that the game is too complex to persist far from the original transmission. By forcing constant correction the game will ultimately return to the original, or develop myriad house rules and simplifications.

Counting on It: Taking advantage of game mutation can be a useful tool to customize a game to a given play group or subculture. A variety of different individually focused components is a powerful way to enable this sort of mutation. In particular by allowing overlap between distinct components, enforcing the use of some components over others as the play progresses. To maximize this effect the individual components should remain focused enough to resist the most replication errors during play.


The last kind of game failure is intentional faults introduced to the game by the players. In essence this is when players cheat under the system or setting, violating the structures of the game, neither ignorant of the change, nor intended to modify the RPG in an overt sense (like with house rules). This necessarily involves a level of deception, even if only a pretense.

When cheating occurs what the game is and what the game is said to be, become two different things. This dichotomy resembles deceptive or spoofed software, which claims to do one thing will actually performing another, potentially related task.

Note, however, cheating does not imply a moral element. In Shared Fantasy Fine's informative sociological study of early RPG groups, cheating is described as a natural accepted activity, typically used to correct perceived inequities of the game. Certainly some cheating is malicious, just as some deceptive software is, but this does not mean that cheating as a whole is wrong. The social context gives meaning, not simply the action itself.

Fixing It: Like any other error cheating cannot be eliminated, but it can be curtailed. Keeping the actions of the players as overt as possible is a valuable approach, eliminating opportunities to cheat. Another strategy is to build cross checks which make cheating difficult to perform by having multiple players share redundant information. Unless all those players agree, then it will not be possible to covertly modify that information. A simple application of this approach is keeping multiple character sheets.

Counting on It: Incorporating cheating into a design is typically done to exploit the duplicity of the failure. By making the game overtly appear to possess some features, but making these features especially vulnerable to cheating, they can be deprecated in actual play without the need to advertise this change. This is especially useful if the audience claims to want one type of RPG, while in practice wants a different type. In such a case they can be given a game which satisfies both needs, something which is impossible for an "honest" game.

Having a Failure to Communicate

Communication failures are endemic in RPGs. Many common games have to deal with these errors, and some of the most successful, intentionally or not have exploited these difficulties to make a better product. It may not seem so at first, but consider these questions. Who really decides how to put together the GURPS mechanics into a game? Are you playing the same D&D in your tenth session as your first? If the World of Darkness is focused on personal horror, why do so many of its games turn into monster of the week?

And remember what is a bug to one person is a feature to another.

Next Month: Speaking in Tongues

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