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Author Topic: Transparency  (Read 12959 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: April 10, 2002, 05:57:17 AM »

Hi Andrew and everyone,

This post is a followup to the Transparent Game System thread in Indie Game Design. I figured I shouldn't derail the thread, as my concern is more theoretical.

I remain skeptical that "transparency" represents a distinctive quality of a given rules system. I think the term refers more to a given experience of play - it is a reaction to or relationship with the system in question, rather than a consistent system feature. In other words, a given system may be "transparent" to one person and not to another.

I have tried to locate a mechanics or distinctive-system element to Transparency based on its description here, as well as on implications of the terms as used elsewhere. The key mechanics issue for discussions of transparency seems to be Search and Handling Time, with the usual association being, Transparency = Lower (shorter) Times. However, when I compare the spectrum of possibilities for these variables, and consider my experiences with people playing and running them, the kind of Golden "Ah! Transparency" Reaction doesn't seem to correlate easily.

At one extreme, perhaps, is The Window or Puppetland, in which very little "in-game physics" (time, distance, or positioning of characters) is handled through Fortune or previously-established quantitative consistency (ie maps, calendars) - rather, such things are handled through on-the-spot Drama, in Forge terms, usually GM-dominated, although not necessarily. I submit that people who prefer games at this end of the spectrum find charts, sequential rolls, concern with positions on maps, and similar things to be distracting.

At the other extreme we have good old BRP (which I keep calling "old RuneQuest" because I don't know what BRP stands for), GURPS, Rolemaster, and similar - these represent the foundational designs for "in-game physics" as the first priority of play. I submit that people who prefer games at this end of the spectrum find the absence charts, sequential rolls, concern with positions on maps, and similar things to be distracting.

[Please note that GNS focus is not relevant to this spectrum, in theory. We do have exceptionally "light" Gamist games, as well as exceptionally "heavy" ones; the spectrum for existing Narrativist design is also much broader than many people think.]

[I also acknowledge that a given person may be in the mood for one end of the spectrum on one day, and in the mood for the other end on another day. The phrase "People who prefer" in the above paragraphs is not a psychological ear-tag, in theory, although in practice ... well, never mind, that debate should be left buried.]

In other words, speaking personally, I find The Window not to be transparent, because its system tends to jar me from my priorities during play, even though it's a low-Search-Time, low-Handling-Time system. The same applies during a BRP game, for me, especially if we are talking about the older "base" form and not one of the "tweaky" forms (e.g. Pendragon, recent Call of Cthulhu). Therefore I don't see the above spectrum as an actual indicator of Transparency, in the reactive, comfort-level sense of the term, at all.

My conclusion about Transparency at this point, is this: it's not that a person doesn't perceive the system during a given play experience, it's that he or she doesn't perceive the system as a problem. Therefore isolating some factor of the mechanics as "transparent" is problematic; the discussion begins with a question regarding the goals of the people involved and ends in a question regarding design Coherency (as defined in my essay).

Best,
Ron
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Blake Hutchins
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« Reply #1 on: April 10, 2002, 09:23:30 AM »

Ron,

How does Everway fit here?  My experience with running it was that once the players "got it," they simply drew from the Fortune Deck and narrated their own results with peripheral input from the rest of the group, even giving themselves negative results to punch up the tension.  It was just about the most "transparent" instance of play I've ever witnessed, drawing off your definition.

Best,

Blake
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2002, 10:35:31 AM »

Hi Blake,

Um, given the squishiness of the debate at the moment, I'm not sure whether you're referring to transparency defined as "narration" (Drama, system-light, whatever) or transparency defined as "comfort during play" (which is what I was aiming at).

Your example sounds to me like the players being comfortable with a narration-based system. It seems to me that the comfort is what we are using to tag "transparency" in action.

For example, I and a number of people I've played with find Everway to be just a bit too loosey-goosey for us, as a matter of taste. Hero Wars, Orkworld, Sorcerer, and Prince Valiant (and now Trollbabe and Violence Future) are more our speed. So is Everway still "transparent?" Since its system calls attention to itself in a distracting way when we play it, it isn't transparent to us.

Does this clarify my point of view, or muddy it? I'm trying to detach transparency, as a term, from "narration" type resolution systems, in which low Handling and Search times are kept low by removing as much mechanics as possible. It makes more sense to me as a reaction or response on the part of the participants.

By my logic, Rolemaster is "transparent" to those who prefer to play in that fashion. And my final point, if this logic is completed, would be that the term is, ultimately, not useful, much like "balance" or "universal."

Best,
Ron

P.S. Blake, I know you aren't being confused by this, but I'll put it in just in case anyone is: "narration," as I use it above, has nothing, squat, to do with Narrativism one way or the other.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #3 on: April 10, 2002, 11:42:33 AM »

Here's my take.

I think that by transparency that people mean more like a lack of that cognative dissonace caused by the interjection of the system into the narrative in obtrusive ways that take the player out of the narrative. I think it reflects a specific play desire on a similar level (but different from) Immersion. Rolemaster would not under this definition be transparent to anyone. OTOH, those playing Rolemaster do not want transpareny by this definition. They want the system to show.

So, low handle time is probably one thing that would increase transparency, as the delays caused by high handling time cause that cognative jar that can take the players mind off of the narrative. "Oh, yeah, that's right, I'm playing a game." That's an overstatement. But one can see how theoretically the player's engagement with the narrative of the game might be disabled by such delays.

Other factors besides handling also apply, like appropriateness of results generated by the system, etc. I agree with you Ron that what exactly constitutes a jar for one will not for another. Some may not be distracted by high handling time, but be bothered by inconsistent results. While otehrs have entirely different things that take them out of the narrative (I dunno, having small hands and having to roll lots of dice, perhaps).

So I think it's very much a YMMV, thing, but a rather specific desire. That's what I get from my reading of posts that use the term.

Mike
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Valamir
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« Reply #4 on: April 10, 2002, 12:03:46 PM »

I'd agree Mike, Transparancy is not, to me, comfort during play.

Transparency is how clearly the player can see the characters, setting, and story looking through the game mechanics...hense the term transparent.

If the rules are obvious and very much involve the players at the game level then they are more opaque.

If the rules are invisible and allow the players to participate in the Roleplaying without having their vision blocked by rules then they are more transparent.

I would agree with Mike's assessment that Roll Master is very much an opaque game.  It appeals to people for whom transparency is not a high priority.
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Blake Hutchins
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« Reply #5 on: April 10, 2002, 12:44:33 PM »

Hi guys,

Ron, I was referring to what I read as an emphasis on "low handling time" in your definition.  No deep thought on my part, I'm afraid.  "Comfort level" as a subjective assessment seems to marry transparency to the particular player's lens, and given that definition, I'm less inclined to view "transparency" as a useful term.  I could be wrong here, but if we take this approach, it seems we would have to analyze individual players in any discussion of a game's transparency/opacity.

It sounds from Mike and Valamir's posts as though their take on transparency relates closely to the previous discussions on "integrity."  At least, the comments about jarring players out of the game sounded a lot like the concerns about losing "suspension of disbelief."

For me, whenever I'm focusing more on the rules and game-part of the game rather than the content or in-game goals, I've hit the opacity Ralph mentioned.

Best,

Blake

(edited for some minor text nits)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: April 10, 2002, 12:52:55 PM »

Hey,

The reason I don't find Mike's and Ralph's definition very convincing is that I find (say) The Window to be opaque. Features of its low-handling-time system, arguably even absent features, have exactly the same jarring, frustrating effect that the high-handling-time system of Rolemaster has on me as well. In both cases, I notice the system in an irksome way.

Yet I don't find Puppetland to be opaque - and it arguably requires a great deal more "cognitive attention" to metagame concerns. In Puppetland, every participant has very strict rules about how to talk, so every sentence has to be predicated with a fair amount of rehearsal, even after you're used to it.

I do not see any way in which a game can be tagged as "transparent" in the way that you guys (and most places I've seen it used) are doing.

Best,
Ron
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J B Bell
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« Reply #7 on: April 10, 2002, 12:57:53 PM »

If I have ever used the term "transparent" on here, I have meant, as in other places, something rather more specific:  mathematical transparency of dice mechanics.  That is, when I started using the term, I meant my ability to "see" the probabilities involved.  This comes form my old Simulationist bent, but I do still think it's something that should be known to the designer even if they don't have a thick "Designer's Notes" with lots of charts.  (And whatever happened to the Designer's Notes in the back, anyway?  I miss them.)

That said, I'll be careful to say "mathematical transparency" now when that's what I mean.  As far as the rest of it, I'm a bit torn between feeling that it is a seriously subjective judgment, as Ron supports, and trying to arrive at a useful definition for the Forge, which I think Mike is zeroing in on rather nicely.  Do describe the property of a game that prevents assumption clash between the player's expectations from the game and its system, it works pretty well, and across notions such as search & handling time, GNS orientation, etc.  A perfectly transparent system would hit assumption clashes exclusively in areas of mismatched play priorities.  (That's a long-winded way of avoiding bringing GNS theory specifically into it.)

--JB
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: April 10, 2002, 01:17:34 PM »

Hey JB,

Regarding "transparency," you wrote,

"[T]o describe the property of a game that prevents assumption clash between the player's expectations from the game and its system, it works pretty well,"

But I disagree. It doesn't work at all well for that purpose. A game's design might prevent that "assumption clash" and still be grossly mechanics-heavy, with tons of critical tables and a roll every four seconds, or anything like that. Whereas as far as I can tell, people only want to apply the term "transparency" to games with the specific details of low Handling and Search Times, minimal quantitative content, and lots of "narration" going on.

Furthermore, that purpose already has a name: coherence. Coherent game design, as defined in my essay, is that which does not throw a monkey wrench into the experience of play. And to be as specific as possible, as well as to repeat the point of the entire essay, such design varies across a very wide range because of all the myriad possible goals people bring to play.

Best,
Ron
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #9 on: April 10, 2002, 01:29:57 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I remain skeptical that "transparency" represents a distinctive quality of a given rules system. I think the term refers more to a given experience of play - it is a reaction to or relationship with the system in question, rather than a consistent system feature. In other words, a given system may be "transparent" to one person and not to another.


BRPS is Basic Roleplaying System.

And man, this Transparency thing smacks of "If the rules get in the way, ignore them." Or rather, a "transparent" system is written so that the rules *don't* get in the way. But instead of making the rules work (ie: they're well designed), it usually means "easy to ignore."

That doesn't make sense to me. Why would I want to use a game system that's unobtrusive, in a "hiding in the corner at the party" kinda wallflower way? Puppetland's not transparent. It's just well designed. The normal parade of character stats, die rolls, etc. aren't used. In a transparent game (I gather), the normal elements are there, they're just kinda tepid and wishy-washy.

- Jared, obviously not grooving on "transparent" game design as much as we was back in '99.
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jared a. sorensen / www.memento-mori.com
Valamir
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« Reply #10 on: April 10, 2002, 01:55:23 PM »

I think perhaps, some are confounding Tranparent with "More enjoyable".  

I agree Jared, I don't think Puppetland is a very Transparent game.  The rules are right there every step of the way while role playing.  However, that fact doesn't necessarily equate to "more enjoyable".

Some people are going to prefer their games to be transparent, and some aren't going to care one way or the other.  Some may actually enjoy massaging the rules directly in an opaque game.

I have a feeling that most people prefer game mechanics that are...shall we say Translucent.  That is the mechanics are there, we know they're there, and we can still see through to the game.

Now, whether or not Transparency is a useful term to add to the lexicon...thats another matter.  I personally have never used the term in any discussion of "what I like" about game X, so it isn't really a personal issue for me...

...which perhaps means I should just butt out and let the people for whom it is important wrangle about it ;-)
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Blake Hutchins
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« Reply #11 on: April 10, 2002, 02:26:27 PM »

Ron's characterization of this quality as coherence makes a lot of sense to me.  When I played The Pool, for instance, there wasn't a sense of having to stop and slog through the various mechanics.   However, when (to take a few swipes at an already cadaverous horse), we played some straight Storyteller recently, any significant action slowed to a crawl while we gathered, tossed, and interpreted scads upon scads of dice.  It wasn't fun for me, same experience as when DnD breaks down to an endless progression of roll d20, then roll d-blah, d-blah, d-blah.  After awhile, this kind of play becomes a painful drudgery, sorta like picking glass out of a wound.  In these cases my problem stems more from a handling time miasma, not the rules themselves.  I prefer more fluid mechanics, or rules that offer an intrinsic fun component themselves (Puppetland's narrative voices, for example).

Best,

Blake
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J B Bell
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« Reply #12 on: April 10, 2002, 02:53:15 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Hey, JB, your attempt at defining "transparency" in a useful way just repeats the definition of "coherent."


Oops.  OK, that's a paraphrase, but I acknowledge being blown out of the semantic water with that cannonade.  I'll stick to my mathematical transparency/clarity/whatever I decide to call it.

--JB
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #13 on: April 10, 2002, 02:58:46 PM »

I think the reason there's no consensus on the meaning of transparency in RPGs is that transparency is a general term that applies to all interactive systems, and all role playing games are pretty close to the same end of the transparency scale.

Transparency generally refers to how easy it is, once you've decided on an action, to know how to put that action into effect. (Not to actually do it, to know how to do it.) All role playing games are pretty darn transparent: you say the action out loud.

Okay, you might also have to roll some dice. Transparency has little to do with how many dice you have to roll or what you have to do with the results or the overall amount of work involved. Greater transparency simply means that it's more obvious at the outset what the procedure is. If you have to find a page in a sourcebook to look up a table that tells you what dice to roll, that's less transparent than saying "That costs me one story point" and not rolling dice at all. But a system in which every action requires you to roll 100d20, add them up, and compare the total to the next listing in the Manhattan telephone directory would be, technically, just as transparent as one in which you always pay one story point. In both cases it's always clear what to do.

In other words, an RPG with different rules for every circumstance is less transparent than an RPG with a single mechanism for doing everything, even if the first RPG's rules are individually elegantly simple and the second one's is laborious. That's why transparency is not an extremely useful measure for PRGs, but is generally correlated with brevity of the rules.

In computer games, computer user interfaces, and user interfaces in general, transparency is a much bigger issue. The controls of automobiles are transparent. The programming controls on VCRs, for the most part, are not.

- Walt
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #14 on: April 11, 2002, 11:10:55 AM »

OK, am I being obvious if I say that it's very likely that, not having been previously defined properly as a role-playing term that many people have used the term to mean many differing things before? Which make speculation about what it "really means" kinda pointless?

I propose we create a proper definition.

I still like where I was going because, it was not coherence I was talking about, or good design, or the comfortability of the system. All of which are concepts that are easily spoken of in those other terms. What I speak of is a particular design goal which satisfies players who are easily jarred out of their comfortablility zone by mechanics that somehow distract them from the narrative.

Lots of people can be comfortable with RM. But others will see it as harshly interfering with their following the events of the narrative and feel uncomfortable because of that. Those who like RM despite this don't care about transparency much. Those who dislike RM because of this seek transparency.

Ron, your argument is circular. To summarize, you find uncomfortable games to be opaque. Therefore Transparency must equal comfort. I personaly find Rollmaster to be comfortable and opaque. Therefore they can't have anything to do with each other. Both arguments are pointless. It doesn't matter what we feel, but what participants in general feel in order to get a useful term, here.

Some people using the term are probably are conflating comfort and transparency. But those people are probably those who are looking for transparency, like it. We have to assume that there may be some who aren't (I think I'm one, frex, so they're not entirely fictional) so we have to come up with a definition that disjoins the two concepts.

Just as GNS and system weight have nothing to do wth each other necessarily, neither would Transparency and system weight. It would probably be harder to make a heavy and transparent system, but not impossible. You'd just have to ensure that all the mechanics led to a clearer view of the narrative. Hero Wars is probably for most an example of non-light transparent mechanics.

Just how I see it.

Mike
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