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Empirical Agency: A Spectrum of Design

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Empirical Agency: A Spectrum of Design

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.

I think I don't understand

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) ?

I've always seen the goal of

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?

specificity, clarity, economy

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.

I'm trying to imagine a

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.


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.

Yes, engaging and desengaging

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 ?


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."


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.

I see lots of cases where I

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.

That's an interesting argument, Emmett

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.

1° I don't agree with "always

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.