Empirical Agency: A Spectrum of Design

Tod's picture

Once upon a time, when my only RPG experiences were fairly crunchy games and my own campaigns were heavy Sims, I believed that there was a spectrum of design when it came to mechanics, and that spectrum ran from "playability" to "specificity."

I was wrong.

Let me clarify; The spectrum described above definitely exists, but it does not exist across all games. It exists across each game, considered as an act of design, all by itself. It makes sense to compare your first draft with your second draft, in terms of this spectrum. But it does not make sense to compare two different games along this spectrum (unless they use the exact same rules, which would make the exercise pointless anyway).

There is another spectrum, however, that I want to talk about. This one actually does exist across all games; it represents a heterodoxy of design approaches, and it's much more interesting.

I don't have a good word for it. Maybe something having to do with Empirical Agency. But basically, this spectrum positions a game mechanic in terms of where the empirical* detail comes from: i.e. the system on one end, or the humans (either GMs or Players) on the other. Note that this is not a binary, and it might have different values for different subsystem: most "crunchy" games handle different types of activity or challenges at different places on this spectrum.

* Fictioneers will of course understand that when I say "empirical" in this sense, I'm talking about the game world, not the one where my character sheet has a coffee stain on it.

Over the years, philosophically, I began thinking of interactive fiction in so many ways, working with and emulating so many stories, genres, and media forms, I came to a place where - let's face it - a Difficulty is a Difficulty regardless of its sphere, and a small handful of basic dynamic structures can be seen to lie beneath all interactions (just as the "Hegelian Dynamic" can be seen in all manner of interactions between creatures, objects, forces, and reality). I began looking at things like Task Resolution Systems in a much more abstract way, like these intangible dynamic structures. Deleuze would call these "abstract machines," but we call them "game mechanical subsystems." These machines can be super-complex, handing up large amounts of highly specific detail with different subsystems for different types of situations, or very simple, maybe even "generic," governing every type of situation with a single machine and handing up only a "Yes" or "No" ... or anywhere in between (most are in between). But in an abstract sense they are all alike: these little structures run their algorithms (using dice or whatever) and then hand up a result including X amount of empirical detail, which then needs to be interpreted in terms of the current fictional situation.

Anyway, my position today is that the output from these machines only needs enough diversity and specificity to permit (and suggest) logical narrative interpretations with a minimum of ambiguity. And further: if your playstyle is flexible enough, ambiguity can be seen as not a problem but an opportunity for injecting narrative detail that the system could not have possibly foreseen; content that perfectly suits the world, the situation, the narrative, and the die roll.

On this view, the complexity of your mechanics should be just enough to prompt the creation of details that aren't so big they strain your creative powers, so vague they can be easily misinterpreted, or so complex that they take an undue amount of time.

All of those values, however (comfortable creative grainsize, narrative authority, and time) are totally subjective, and they provide different sorts of experiences. They may even differ within the same individual under different circumstances, when playing different games, or at different times in their life.

So. Yeah. There's something to think about.

DeReel's picture

I think I don't understand but no matter what, I have to try. Do you mean Tarot at one end and Heads/Tails at the other, like : varying degrees of output ambiguity vs clarity ? Or base difficulty +-modifiers VS Tarot, like player -> mechanical vs mechanical -> player (Agency) ? Or rather, with 3 dimensions : specificity, clarity, economy (in which case you're on the path to redefine communication) ?

Emmett's picture

I've always seen the goal of game mechanics to be, deliver the most description while requiring the least complexity.

Is that what you're looking to describe?

Tod's picture

The spectrum itself represents a range from:
"All detail of significance arises from determinations made by the system"
"All detail of significance arises from human imagination"

Of course, roleplaying games by their very nature engage in an interplay between these two poles. One is tempted to place "Gamist" games near the first pole (with completely mechanical games like Chess sitting at the extreme end), and "Narrativist" games near the other (with the extreme end being freeform make-believe). That's probably true in a general way but I wouldn't put too much weight on it, since this is all relative to the degree of fine detail you want the game to support, deliver, or permit. My friends and I have often played "mechanical" games but with an added layer of detail - "Stratego" with names and backstories for all the pieces, "Outdoor Survival" with magic rules lifted from "Wizards," "HexCrawl Chess" (Chess with wandering monsters and combat rules), etc - and it's hella fun.

specificity, clarity, economy

Those are great words. S/C/E.
All three are aspects, or components, of the compound value by which a system's fitness might be measured, relative to your preferences and expectations (along the same spectrum). But I'm not quantifying mechanical systems against each other. A similar rating might be applied to two games with very different mechanics. In other words, the spectrum is not measuring these traits directly; rather, these traits are factors to consider when trying to design or decide upon a system that matches your own preferred position on the spectrum (for this particular game, or session, or genre, or group).

Or to put it another way: An ideal system for you will be one that's just complex enough to produce the grainsize of interpretive detail you like to work with. It need be no more complex than that. Note that this is RELATIVE TO THE GRAINSIZE OF DETAIL YOUR PREFERRED PLAYSTYLE DEMANDS. If you're interested in gunplay and physical verisimilitude, you're probably going to want a system that provides more empirical detail than a group whose concerns are more emotional or narrativistic, when a gunfight ensues. And even though the exact location of a shot might be important in both games, in the former you'll probably use a Called-Shot rule and a Hit Location table, with very little "empirical agency" exercised by the GM; while in the other game the system might say no more than "Really Bad" and the GM provides a logical interpretation of what "really bad" means, an interpretation which will include hit location.

It should be repeated that a single set of game rules might fall in one place on the spectrum for certain types of actions, and elsewhere for others. A good example that most are familiar with might be D&D, where we can compare combat procedures (maybe we throw in the crit tables from Arms Law, maybe we use the Called Shots rule, what the hell?) versus rolling on the NPC Reaction table. Same game, but the former situation is treated with several subtables and precise detail handed up by the system, while the other is treated as a vague category with details invented by the GM.

Overall, the SCE of a game system needs to match, or at least not radically exceed, the preferences of the participants.

Emmett's picture

I'm trying to imagine a situation where I've seen players complain that a game is too specific. Too complicated yes (low economy). Or a situation where clarity is too high. Again, it's the cost of the clarity that is the cause of complaints.

Although maybe there are times where a mechanic will give details and you could complain that they don't follow the source material or genre. In that case is it a complaint against specificity? Or is it just a bad design?

If the design is done well, (as in the design follows expectations) I can't imagine players rejecting more specificity or clarity. Imagine a game that took near zero effort, a highly economic game and delivered very detailed descriptions. At what point would it be too specific? If with the roll of the dice a page of description was delivered, that would probably be too much.

Tod's picture

Players might not think so, but the GM might.
Still and again, the spectrum isn't measuring SCE. It's measuring where those things come from.

DeReel's picture

Yes, engaging and desengaging a mechanic is usually done with handling cost in mind, be it only the cost of reading pre written content or the integrality of a rule (I see it micro-happening all the time). Maybe there are margin cases where handling is not considered as downtime but rather as a ritual.

When I design, at my amateur level, I consider the ease potential players will have imagining and verbalising content. If I expect difficulty there, I will produce seeds and prompts subsystems for generating content they can push into play.
Games with lots of mechanics that give lots of detail, one way or another have more authorial content. These games with lots of ready made content : don't they need to feed a larger audience ? And doing so suppose some players will be less competent ? At the cost of some agency ? With amusement park MMORPG and game books at one end of the spectrum ?

Tod's picture

You got it. I think you're precisely right. Nearer to the other end of the spectrum we have games in which empirical agency is one of the aspects most "in play," and may be engaged in great detail by GMs (OSR or homebrew worlds with trad systems), Players (Fiasco), or both (DayTrippers). These games permit/require a greater degree of "author stance" or "director stance," both of which grant empirical agency.

Note that it's not like Players never contribute empirical detail in an OSR game, but the significance of that detail is strictly governed by the GM, who cannot permit certain things to simply "exist all the sudden" in the gameworld. In such games it is often also the case that Players expect the GM to go more "by the system" than "on the fly."

Emmett's picture

You miss my point. If the system generates detail with specificity, clarity and economy, who is going to object? The objection almost always comes from poor economy.

The only reason to have players generate details is because the system cannot without harming economy.

This is why World of Warcraft had 10 million active subscribers at one point and 100 million subscribers total. For comparison D&D has around 8 million players. The computer generated system accepts only action level detail from the players and it has more subscribers. The system delivers s/c/e.

I'm curious if there is a counter example of a game where the system delivers s/c/e and people complain?

Of course players can deliver s/c/e but specificity and clarity are usually at varying levels from players to player and even turn to turn with the same player.

DeReel's picture

I see lots of cases where I don't want details. Maybe mechanics who hand out a high level of detail need more ambiguity to "fit" into the conversation ? Each player contributing a small prompted part is the way I see most contemporary RPGs go.

Paul T.'s picture

If that's your thesis, why do you think games with low specificity are popular (or played at all)?

Shouldn't the most effective games in that regard be the most liked, enjoyed, and popular? It seems to me that having detail dictated for you by procedures and systems (which a computer can do effortlessly, as you point out, so there's no problem of economy) is not a clear positive. Many people love looser, more open, freeform games. Deterministic and detailed forms limit creativity and input as well as flexibility, and many people prefer one over the other. I've always seen it as a tradeoff, with no clear "optimal" solution.

For example, PbtA-style "moves" evolved from Otherkind Dice. They are popular and effective... but they also limit the way we design, play, and use those mechanics. Basic Otherkind dice (which provide almost no determinism/detail) can do so many things PbtA moves cannot, and are far more flexible. Indeed, just looking at PbtA moves, it's not the ones with the most specificity and clarity that produce the best games or are the most fun to play; I don't see a clear correspondence there at all.

DeReel's picture

1° I don't agree with "always comes from poor economy".
Maybe there's this bias :

When the economy of a game is lacking, it's easier to rationally agree on the diagnosis. You'll still hear arguments from those who like the game no matter what, because they have no comparison outside their local community. Like we all were before the internet, more or less.

But when specificity is lacking, only those who want specificity will complain. When ambiguity is lacking, only hazy hippies will complain. It will be deemed a matter of taste.

2° Like Paul_T, I don't agree with "The only reason to have players generate details is because the system cannot without harming economy."

A counter-example : the games I like have players generating details. To me, the creation of content is fun in itself.
edit : But I agree that people are much better than mathematics tables at generating meaningful content.

DeReel's picture

In horror, letting room for imagination is a thing. Also, in my agenda, I like to work on/in the looseness of assertions made at the table, so maybe I am specifically sensitive to that, but In PbtA, I am sure @Emmett you can feel the power in formulations like (approx) "You exit the scene leaving something." or "Harm". Ever heard of someone trying to Seize the dead memories of their joyful youth By Force ?

Maybe that's just me Princess playing in the void of a form that was not meant for that
(Vincent Baker in Anyway : "If, on the other hand, what you want out of roleplaying is suspense, resolution, story, theme, character, meaning - listen up.
Second: conventional RPGs can't give it to you. I'm sorry.
So, third: that stuff you want? You get that by approaching roleplaying as though it were a form of fiction, a form of literature. "

Well, these voids where I can work on the meaning, they are so everywhere to me, like bubbles in champaign. That's what I play for. The surge and flow of creativity, the anticipation, deception, surprise and crowning moment of the collective and intuition doing much better than one ever could think.

I think that Theme lodges easily in these voids. It's the Lovecraftesque trick.It's everywhere in Girl underground.Some games have prompts like a Rorshach test to jump start creativity. Idem the illustrations in your favourite RPG, like dream elements you combine into a world and a story.

On the contrary, the race for pixels in videogames and photography gives a mere illusion of content.

Back to OP : can't the amount of info bits a given game procedures provides just be measured ?as for the other sources of content, the ratio of their contribution ? I have a project to measure "crunch" : counting "prolixity" makes for a nice side project in the same expedition.

DeReel's picture

In this article pointed to by Emily Care Boss, the Unpossible author speaks of "granularity". I have heard this term a lot regarding the coarseness and precision of the numbers used for a simulation. I feel it applies there, because the mathematical coarseness of the mechanics seems a good overall predictor of the specificity and "loquacity" of empirical content in a given game.

Also, I think the concept of Empirical content specificity or granularity is linked to "zooming in/leaning in". "zooming in" is a mark of interest but also a phrase denoting a behaviour at the table, that of engaging with mechanics to bring attention - and detail - to a thing deemed important (usually in-game content).

Finally, it seems obviouser and obviouser that the concept is linked to Crunch (/ complexity) not only with what was said here about the economy of comlexity vs specificity, but also because an object I had trouble studying through Crunch lenses I can pin down as a specific relation between Crunch and Specificity.
The object : + - circumstancial modifiers à la Hero System.
The first approach :
How many "crunches" is that ? Hard to tell. It can count as 0 crunch (we bypass what the modifier table proposes us totally) or... a theoretical infinity (but there is wind -1 yes but my hunter is on their home ground +1 sure but having just run for a long time, the sweat prevents accurate aiming yes but ...)
The second approach :
You get one "grain" per "crunch". No more, no less.
Not only is the second approach fruitful, but it seems promising in understanding all sorts of mechanics :
For instance with Blades in the Dark roll, you put three handful of "grains" before cranking the wheel : effect, position and blablabla. No wonder some players find it hard to crank.

I don't know if we are inventing that, or if it was ever thought of. Humility whispers to me that it was probably said but didn't flourish. And I suspect the thought wall was probably hit because people were trying to classify whole games as "rule light" or "indie" or other impractical stuff I'd call "commercial" or "cultural" denominations, instead of looking at what's there and how it works in practice. Who wants to count the hair on the butt of flies, right @Thomas Hunt Morgan ?

DeReel's picture

is bad etiquette, but this post is a direct continuation to the previous one.

I studied what are the implications on each side of the "content spectrum". With Blades in the dark vs Gurps as models, and adding the first two definitions to what we have already said in this thread, here is what I get :
definitions :
factor = an argument in favour of a probable outcome (it is a dark and stormy night, they are watching a loud show on TV, you are used to sneaking, etc.)
granularity : n states (eg: coarse 3 states : 50/50, advantage, disadvantage, fine 20 states)

cases :
Factors count is unlimited (Gurps) : from a standard position (calibrated with tables and descriptions) to crunchy (+ 1 crunch = +1 content), specific (content becomes increasingly specfic), object oriented (the goal is to measure "what's there"), fine grain (to allow the maths to accompany the increase in specificity)
Factors count limited (Blades in the Dark) : from a starting judgement (the GM includes many unspoken factors as the starting point) to elegant (players and GM try to make every factors fit into a few numbers), dramatic centered (only certain factors will make it as "narratively important", and it's an arms race to cover these), coarse grain (rolls converging to 50/50, it's important to know if there's advantage or disadvantage)
Of course, I haven't demonstrated these, but I have followed them in various ways (possible tactics, observed play culture).
In Blades in the Dark, elegance is often cut in favour of saving time : the table doesn't go into the lengthy description of all factors. The same happens in Gurps, where some factors are not taken into account just because they are forgotten in favour of fast play. That's an outside consideration, a pressure on the mechanic as a whole, independent of its type.
I think the most important difference is whether the table or GM feels authorized to start from a judgement. That's what you get in practice when the DM rules the Difficulty for a roll as being 5 10 or 15 (coarser grain). This implies that players too can exercise judgement, arbitrating between difficulty and effect, with 3 decisive states (balanced/adv/disadv) . Fine grain means judgement needs to be built, and errors will statistically be drowned in finer granularity. From my perspective, it's obvious players shouldn't shy away from judgement, but that may be a privileged perspective.

I suspect that fine granularity aims at divergence : the point being to see how far from the equilibrium the probabilities are (("by how much"), rather than finding a medium tilting point (yes/no). Contrary to intuition, I think this makes fine grain better for competition, in that one action early in game doesn't necessarily determine the final outcome. With coarse grain, the answer is clear cut, and can be because it's less about winning/losing.

Here I make a parallel between the granularity of factors and that of consequences, because it 1° saves time and 2° fosters creativity to trade factors for consequences. For those who would like to argue that using fine grain scale can yield coarse grain results, I say : called shots. On the contrary Conflitct resolution on a coarse grain is a big "get on with it" sign to the table. That said, the trade between factor and consequences doesn't have to be at a 1/1 ratio.

Likewise, supplies bookkeeping and effect scaling tend to be of the same granularity as most factors, but, once again, don't have to be.

I hope I have done more here than just rephrase Drama vs Wargame, and shown how one axiom brings a whole chain of consequences that, in the end, explain a bit of why these two opposite play cultures have certain characteristics.

DeReel's picture

... maybe because Tod told me I was "precisely right" ;P

So I was thinking about sausage machines and I thought: "Descended from the Queen games, actually, you just need to draw card after card until the end." This ab absurdo shows sausage machines is not only derogatory and stinky, but outright irrelevant.

So if you take the clothes of this strawman, one idea remains: creativity space to improvise in a TTRPG, it can be
a) bounded on all sides
b) started by a solid prompt
c) arriving at a solid end

I think that is a kind of blind point of all the "Fortune / Karma " x "in the beginning / middle / end" x "Initiation Intent Execution Effect" permutations: when you stop focusing on the resolution mechanic, and you see the way the creativity space is framed in a game.

Maybe that has already been said. In which case, where. Anyway, that's an abstract design space to explore, maybe.

Silmenume's picture

I think that is a kind of blind point of all the "Fortune / Karma " x "in the beginning / middle / end" x "Initiation Intent Execution Effect" permutations: when you stop focusing on the resolution mechanic, and you see the way the creativity space is framed in a game.

I have been working on this VERY topic, but not in the way you have so succinctly put, for years. I've talked about GM interpretation of results and non-deterministic mechanics all the way back to my "The Spicy Die Roll" back on the Forge some 15+ years ago. The third category of resolution that was noted but never given any thought was "GM Fiat". That term carries a lot of negative baggage in the very choice of the words and any discussion about it was smothered a priori by the founding principle that "System Matters." The article held the implicit bias against creative decision making while forwarding, as a deeply foundational, the absolute need for deterministic mechanics. That if a GM must make a decision on the fly then there is a problem or a shortcoming in the game's design.

As you indicated above and which I at quoted in the opening of this post, is that such an unquestioned bias towards a powerful defining mechanics system will obscure, as you noted, "...the creativity space" which can frame a game.

Lately I've been coming around to see that Engineered game designs create procedural play processes. Right now, as the hobby stands, G/N design and play are highly procedural. This doesn't mean that there isn't any creativity going one, not at all, but what I am saying is the such procedural play will have a very strong tendency to elevate those procedures to the point where the adherence to them will take precedence over a creative choice. As sort of, "you can't do that" mentality, because a mechanic doesn't exist to cover that action/choice and is thus avoided altogether.

In an existentialist game you don't want players looking to mechanics for their choices, you want them looking into the world space/"the creativity space" that frames the game. By shifting focus away from procedure and mechanics to creativity the players are forced/freed to prioritize interacting with the game world thus giving breathing room for the experiential feeling to bloom. You must test and learn by experience how the fictional world works just like we do in our daily lives. To function well in this fictional reality you have to commit to it as "the" functioning reality and that creates perception - aka experience.

I would also add, for consideration, that information to the players be given to them at in an subjective form rather than absolute truths for the same reason. Just as we don't interact with reality being fed absolute truths but must "experience" it through our sense and then draw inferences to create our reality map drawn from our "experience" of reality.

I've been going about this using "myth" as a model which is an arcane and difficult concept to discuss. You just blew a hole in the hegemony of deterministic mechanics game design and play beautifully with a few words! Let me stop before I get ahead of myself. I'm NOT knocking such modes of play. They are quite enjoyable and millions of people enjoy them. My beef has always been that "experiential" play (what I've been labeling as "Sim" be we don't have to go into that here) does NOT work well with a powerful deterministic mechanics system for precisely the reason you noted to elegantly. I suppose "experiential" play can happen with such mechanics but you are essentially paddling upstream by trying to do so. It can happen but it is much, much harder.

I suppose my focus has been, then, just what are the guides that the players and the GM ARE using to direct play. Maybe that was the wrong way to go. At least until it was demonstrated, as you have done, that the focus on mechanics design and play obscures the creativity space that can be used as a substitute for mechanics.

Anyhow, I'm just ranting and doing cartwheels here!



DeReel's picture

I'm going for something much more limited with "framing a creative space" I think:
To me "your climbing roll is bad result, describe the consequences" is framed on the left by "climbing" and on the right by "bad". It's loosely framed on the left, like Initiation is solid, Execution is fuzzy on its right side and Effect is altogether wobbly. So the creative space is there, on the right side of IIE*e.
"This is act 3 and we need a surprising turn of event, describe it" is very loosely framed, and the strongest part there is is the Effect, namely "surprise". Like iieE
So I was thinking of the moment when you get to improvise content at the table as "creative space" and all the procedures as "framing" that space. I don't see how this links back to Engineered or other playstyles, but if you see it in these examples, we're golden.

Regarding procedures, I see all types of play and tastes, and in my experience leaning hard on rules, GM, and everything else is a way to disclaim (creative) responsibility. I have my own thoughts on why they do that, but it's rather off topic.