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Transparency again

Started by Ron Edwards, April 17, 2002, 03:54:02 PM

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Ron Edwards


Andrew Martin began this Transparent Game System thread in Indie Design, and I began the Transparency thread in an attempt to address some trouble I am having with that term. Unfortunately, and typically, instead of presenting an argument that looks like A-B-C-D, I presented D and 7, and therefore the mess that thread became is my fault. Rather than continue with it, I'll see if I can present what I should have said (in the classic French sense of the "wisdom of the staircase") and you guys can tell me if I am making any sense.

Point one: Transparency, as a term, is equivalent to, or even an extreme version of, "system-light." As such, it suffers from all the usual problems of trying to compare, judge, or define game design in terms of "lightness."

Point two: The specific problem with the system-light issue is that it confounds the mechanics-density variable with "good," in a blanket sense. I argue, in contrast, that a mechanics-focus approach is more reliable, such that if the goals of the game/people are met by (say) very diffuse mechanics, then all is good, but (again, just for instance) very diffuse mechanics are not going to result in "good" independently of the people's goals or comfort levels. The exact same sentence applies to very dense/focused mechanics, relative to goals and comfort levels.

A related but very important point is the relative strictness of rules, which is independent of the density of rules. These tend to be confounded as well in discussions of "heavy" vs. "light," such that "light" is often equated with "not strict." Sorcerer, Puppetland, and The Pool, for instance, present a conundrum - they tend to have low density of rules, but very high strictness of their application.

Point three: In application, low-strictness, low-density rules tend to lead to massive negotiation in-play regarding what happens and why. Such games either dissolve or settle upon a social solution, usually granting authority to one person to handle most of the resolving power (this is primarily an IIEE issue), whether overtly or covertly.

Point four (possibly not a big deal, included just for completeness): There is no such thing as a system-LESS role-playing experience. Even if the system is, "Let's talk and generate a series of imaginary events via making up the actions of characters and things," that's still a system.

Therefore I have had a very hard time understanding what people mean by "transparent," although it seems to be a mix of low-density rules, low-strictness rules, high-Drama resolution, little if any metagame mechanics, and (apparently) little if any formal Director Stance mechanisms.

All comments welcome! (And I hope I've made sense this time.)


Mike Holmes

I can't argue with that, Ron.

I will say that there are at least two major groups that I think are using transparency in different ways, though by far, the description you give seems to be the most common. Either some of the people who used the term in this fashion will have to post a response to this that elucidates their use of the term further, or I will be forced to agree with you on all points Ron.

BTW, I think that your point about strictness is important (and yes, Puppetland is as strict as a Nazi concentration camp as RPGs go; IIRC, you have to stand to speak in charcter, and are punished if you do not.) I am happily in the stricter is better camp myself, though I would like to hear from opponents of the idea.

On your "no system" note. I sort of agree. But I would also point out that what you describe as systemless roleplaying could also be termed a form of Interactive Fiction or Collaborative Storytelling. I've often wondered how to, or whether to, distinguish precisely between these activities, and what implications such distinction would have. Certainly there are two distinct communities revolving aroung each activity.

Now that I look at them, the last two points may be grounds for their own threads.

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Lance D. Allen

The way I've been understanding the terms of Transparency is a little different from yours, Ron. I'll try to keep this brief.

Transparent games are not so much rules light as intuitive with low handling times for the players, and easily found details for the GM so that the game does not slow down, making the system apparent. It's a relative term more than an objective one, but there are ways to define what can be transparent, and what is most certainly NOT transparent. Keep in mind that at least some of theses features are purely subjective.

Transparent features:
The players and GM can learn the basic rules without having to refer to the book often.
The book is well organized, allowing the GM to quickly and easily find any needed rules or charts.
The system does not draw attention to itself by clashing with player's ideas of how things should work (being unbalanced for Gamists, unrealistic for Simulationists, etc.)

What is NOT Transparent:
Games with high search and handling times, either due to complicated rules, or bad organization.
Games requiring lots of die rolls, chart look-ups, or stat comparisons, for even minor situations.
Games with rule systems which directly clash with themselves in given instances.

Transparency is not synonymous with enjoyment. Some may enjoy rule-systems where you need to look up the specific effects of gravity on the arc of a ball when two characters are playing catch. Others find charts a quick and easy way to get through many situations. However, for the most part, as Transparency is subjective, people will enjoy systems which are Transparent to them, whether or not the game meets the criteria of Transparency to anyone/everyone else.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Gordon C. Landis

Ron -

I understand your analysis - what was the point?  Uh, that's a literal question, not a confrontational accusation - I mean, what were you trying to demonstrate?  That "transparency" is not a particularly useful term? Or to simply open up a dialog about what folks *think* transparency is?  I agree it's a problematic word, for many of the reasons you cite - although since it does let us get at the very interesting, important, and difficult issues you outline, I guess it's not all bad.

Personally, I've seen folks label as "transparent" games that are quite UNlike your "low density/strictness, high Drama etc." description; e.g., I've seen folks praise d20 as transparent (for them).  In fact, I think that's the key behind Ryan Dancy's claim that one system would/will be good for the hobby (uh, mentioning that seems relevant to this definition of transparency, so I'll leave it in, but please - discussion on the merits of this claim belong elsewhere, probably NOT even on the Forge).  So I guess I've seen a different definition of transparent used - maybe something like "Using the system doesn't *feel* like "a system", it feels like playing the game."  This leads me to the following statements:

1) The "feel" part of my definition is tricky - first of all, what "feels" like system or game will vary from person to person.  And analytically, there *is* no difference - the system (formal or otherwise) *is* the game.  Still, I think people do somehow distinguish between the two . . . I'm gonna have to think a bit about how.

2) That said . . .  for some folks, there IS no difference between "working with the system" and "playing the game", and in that case trasparency just isn't an issue (in any system, they are by default 100% "strict", and that's what gaming is about for them).

3) Even if folks do care about transparency, a very dense/heavy rule set may still be seen by those familiar with it as "transparent".  Those who find heavy/dense rule sets appealing may NOT be bothered by the initial lack of transparency of a new system, because developing your understanding of the rules so that they eventually BECOME transparent (or at least more, or mostly, trasparent) is just the way things work.

4) Strictness is especially sensitive to the the personal interpretation part of this definition of transparency.  Some folks will find following the strict requirements of Puppetland entirely part of "playing the game" - others will see them as "system" intrusions into the game playing experience.

So . . . it's not particularly meaningful to say you want a game mechanic to be "transparent" unless you also say what you think transparent "looks" like.  Rules that are simple enough that you don't have to look 'em up?  But that must none the less be followed strictly?  Or that are sufficiently vague that your "on the fly" evaluation doesn't contradict anything?

Also hoping I'm making sense,


BTW - Mike, if you start that "no system" thread ("RPGs, Interactive Fiction, and Collaboritive Storytelling - Defining the Boundries"?), I have one (probably minor) thought to contribute . . . (under construction)

Ron Edwards


It's partly this multiple reading of Transparency that's causing the problem as well. Person X says, "I prefer transparent game design," and persons Y and Z nod in agreement. What has actually been communicated? Quite likely nothing. I was basing my description mainly from Andrew Martin's proposed example.

[Oh, minor GNS-guy point: "balance" and "realism" are such debased terms that they really shouldn't be used at all, much less associated directly with Gamism and Simulationism respectively. I can read both of those terms such that they support the opposite goal that you have cited.]


Blake Hutchins

OK, please bear with me as I dip my toe in the waters here.

In my view, "transparency" connotes low handling time paired with flavor or color that reinforces my immersion in the genre or setting.  Classic case of the latter instance would be the use of poker chips in Deadlands or cards in Falkenstein.  I think for the term "transparency" to be at all useful, we need to move away from a subjective assessment model  -- if we can.  Are there ways to benchmark what makes a game transparent?  Ron's offered handling time as a starting point.  Wolfen suggests that handling time is itself determined by player familiarity and subjective comfort with the rules.  I haven't read the handling time discussion recently, but things like the number of dice rolls required to resolve a situation spring to mind as a reasonably objective standard for assessing handling time, at least in games that use Fortune as a resolution mechanic.

I propose that a game's transparency or opacity manifests during play either when the focus shifts substantially from the events in play to the minutiae of executing mechanics (high search and/or handling times even for players familiar with the system), or whenever invoking the rules themselves jars one out of the mental movie playing in the mind's eye (let's call this "dissonant color" for the purposes of this post).  Either way, decreased transparency causes a pause in the flow of play, a speed bump in the continuity of in-game events.

I don't see strictness as being a transparency problem.  Adherence to rules as opposed to ad hoc mechanics does not necessarily create obstacles.  For example, Puppetland's strict rules create dramatically increased color and immersive atmosphere, but they are quite fast-moving and hardly require anything in the way of reference during play, so I conclude they're more transparent, not less.

Another way to look at this is to contrast transparency with coherence, a term Ron brought up in the other thread.  Coherence strikes me as a goal-oriented definition, but transparency suggests a barrier.  Taking this characterization and running with it, coherent game mechanics reinforce a game's stated design goals effectively, by which I mean elegantly.  Transparency/opacity represents the degree to which the system hinders players from achieving the game's design goals.  Opaque games are less coherent and (by my definition) less elegant, transparent games more so.




Jack Spencer Jr

I'll be honest, I don't get this whole trasparency thing either. First and only place I'd seen it used before was The Window but that was more a clever turn-of-phrase in reference to actual windows, I thought.

Near as I can figure, the word that is actually meant is intuitiveness. That is, use of the game's mechanics is second nature and people can use them easily without thinking about them too much and it isn't really thought of when it is.

I have my doubts that even this is a very useful term for describing and RPG and different people will find different games easier to use than others.

Ron Edwards

Hi Gordon,

You wrote,
". . . it's not particularly meaningful to say you want a game mechanic to be "transparent" unless you also say what you think transparent "looks" like."

And I agree. You asked what my point was, and that is my point, exactly as you state - or rather, I might extend that further and delicately deposit "transparency" next to, oh, "balance" and "universal" in my little bin of RPG-Discussion-Destroying words.

Lance and Blake, both of you have presented "what I think when I see Transparent," and I have no disagreement with what you're presenting - except to say that we are garnering, person by person, a whole bollocksful of what "transparent" means, variously. And that's a problem. Jack has stated it - it's a user-driven term, and without generalizable power. Use it, and you either generate meaningless agreement (each person thinking the other shares his own definition), endless discussion ending in "well, everyone's opinion is valid" horseshit, or very rarely, a fruitful discussion that ends up being about ... shock! ... Coherence.

Someone may post something that clarifies the whole thing for me and changes my view. Until then, though, I think the li'l bin is the best place for the term.


J B Bell

I have to agree with Ron now, after my abortive attempt to make the term useful.  Honestly it reminds me of so-called "intuitiveness" touted frequently of different operating systems.  I use Linux as my desktop system, and it's totally intuitive for me.  I could argue that it's because my learning style is strongly word-based, blah blah blah, but what it boils down to is "familiar".  Macintosh is "intuitive" not because its design is necessarily inherently better, but because they have really fascist enforcement of their interface standards.  Indeed, by this standard, the claim that D20 is "transparent" is not hard to support, but what it really is, is 1. ubiquitous and 2. standardized.  So, you don't "notice the system" because you're not learning new rules as you pick up new games.  (And presumably you're not the sort for whom D20 just naturally grates like hell.)

"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

Blake Hutchins

I, on the other hand, clearly hadn't read Ron's last essay in awhile.  I have done so now, and am going to mull it over before trying to reinvent any more wheels.  That said, I'm still uncertain whether some systems present obstacles to coherent play less from GNS incoherence and more from some other generalizable quality.  As I said, I'll have to think on it.

Thanks for the feedback, folks.



Andrew Martin

Here's my very rough definition of a transparent game system. It's a game system that is unobtrusive, helps rather than hinders, allows descriptors to mean many different things rather just the one thing and it's really, really easy to come up with a rule for a previously unconsidered situation and the apply it and it makes sense (follows real world or game world rules).

At the moment, I'm agreeing a lot with Wolfen's first post in this thread as well.

I don't think that a Transparent game system is necessarily rules-light or rules-heavy, or encourages strict adherence to rules or loose, sloppy rules. Instead, I'm proposing a large number of individual guidelines that fit a wide variety of situations that characters could find themselves in, which players can select an appropriate guideline from on the fly as it were. These guidelines come with an example (or several) so that players can decide, yes/no to whether the guideline fits the situation.

As for gameplay, I'm not going to specify that transparent game system must be played in various ways, like Director, Author etcetera, as I've got players who play in different ways and I prefer not to drive them away. So provided other players can cope (they usually do, in my experience), it's OK with the game system.

One more thing. This is usually the way I've seen how RPG rules and setting interact.

| <----- Designer -------> | <------- Players ---------> |
Setting --> game rules --> | --> game rules --> Setting

Basically the rules are two layers in between the setting in the mind of the designer and the setting in the mind of the players.
With a transparent game system, the game rules aren't inbetween the two versions of the setting. Instead they're at right angles to the setting. The setting itself is the "game system rules" as it were and are the ultimate arbiter (apart from the players them selves), not the game system rules.

I hope that helps make things clearer. :)
Andrew Martin

Le Joueur

Just a word from an outside philosopher....

Whenever I hear someone call a game system transparent, I don't think of how heavy or light, complicated or simple, intuitive or no.  To me it's like talking about walking.  (For the most part,) Everyone does it, but no one thinks about it.

Take a minute.  Get up.  Walk around the room.  I'll wait....

Okay, good.  Now think about it.  Did you plan out every step?  Did you consider how to flex the numerous muscles in the proper sequence?  Did you concentrate on how much force was being absorbed by your skeletal system and how well it could handle that?

Did you even think about your feet?

Probably not.

More likely it was some mixture of 'go that way, go this way.'  The technique of walking is so familiar.  I got to thinking about this as my children were working it out.  At first it's a highly deliberate act, a lot of looking at the feet; thinking them what to do.  Soon the gross movements are assimilated and it becomes a matter of repeating it until the coordination comes.  But before that point, running!  Always focussing on 'the next thing' is how the final parts of 'getting it' took place.

It looks pretty easy in practice, but just try programming it into a robot.  It's the same way with game systems (I believe); sometimes the most counter-intuitive rules turn out to be the easiest to 'get.'  Sometimes even the most complicated; you really can't tell unless you find you can't "focus on 'the next thing.'"  And I call that 'internalization' (mostly because 'transparency' is too confusing).

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Ron Edwards

Hi Fang and Andrew,

I can only point to the paragraph in my last post, addressed to Blake and Lance. Both of you, like them, have presented "What transparency means to me."

And I say again: I don't care. That's not the issue, even though all four of you have said brilliant, excellent things about game design and related matters. Nothing you've said is wrong or inconsistent or anything else bad. But "transparency" as a term is not helping our discussion of anything you've said.

Andrew, what I'm interested in is whether you see any reason for the term "Transparency" to exist, given my term Coherence in my essay. Given that Coherence is a direct outcome of real people interacting with one another and the game system in question, and given its definition - to achieve Exploration of Setting, Character, System, Situation, and Color in light of a shared Premise (of whatever GNS variety, including combinations) ... then it seems to me that your definition, above, is already accounted for: transparent = Coherent game design, with absolutely no other specification of particular qualities.


Le Joueur

Quote from: In brief, Ron EdwardsHi Fang

I can only point to the paragraph in my last post

you, like them, have presented "What transparency means to me."

But "transparency" as a term is not helping our discussion of anything

what I'm interested in is whether you see any reason for the term "Transparency" to exist, given my term Coherence in my essay.
If you look more closely at what I wrote:

Quote from: Le JoueurAnd I call that 'internalization' (mostly because 'transparency' is too confusing).
I don't see that as just "What transparency means to me," or a ringing endorcement for the term.

Do you?

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Ron Edwards

Hi Fang,

I get you now. That makes sense, and I agree. Do I understand you to mean that "internalization" is the, if you will, personal experience of rendering a game system Coherent? That's how I read it.

And thus Coherent game design is that which makes that internalization occur most consistently, especially in terms of the group dynamic (once the personal becomes the social).