[Swashbuckler] Big Model describes boardgame?

Started by David Berg, February 14, 2008, 08:32:58 PM

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David Berg

I played the Swashbuckler boardgame with my dad a lot when I was maybe 10-13 years old.  It's a game where you have a board filled with objects, and you have characters you move about the board, trying to kill each other.  How well they can kill each other depends on the objects they're interacting with.  Have they picked up a sword?  Are they standing on a table?  You can also choose (or maybe roll? I forget) between different attacks.  So I might kick you, or punch you, or knife you, or hit you with a beer mug.

I always tended to lose interest in strategy games after a while -- I love Stratego, but only if players are decisive and the action keeps moving.  In Swashbuckler, though, I never got bored, because all the little events of play were things I could imagine actually happening in the reality suggested by the gameboard (the well-drawn objects and characters didn't hurt).

The game design itself didn't require me or my dad to imagine play as anything other than game pieces and look-up tables, but we both had fun grimacing over the specifics to confirm a shared vision.

"Boom!  Davey Jones hits Bluebeard with the beer mug, shattering it!"  (Beer mug was a one-use weapon.)

"Ooh!  Poor Bluebeard!  He has one wound left, he's a mess!"

We had a shared social contract (he's my dad, we're playing a game until it ends or he deems some responsibility more important) and a shared agenda (play by the rules, try to beat each other, communicate some small level of imaginary detail).  Did we have Exploration?  Well, my immersive/realism Sim-loving brain says no, but then I take a step back and think:

Gamism with Exploration focused on System is still roleplaying.  Even if it only uses Pawn Stance, and has a low level of exploration of all 4 other components.  Even if the SIS includes sketchy characters, a sketchy setting, and the color is imparted largely by the resolution rules.  Even if the means of communicating changes to the SIS is more moving pieces and less talking.  None of this would render a game "not roleplaying", right?

It seems like the second that someone views game elements as representations rather than objects in themselves, they're Exploring.  If that's true, I reckon a lot of boardgamers have inadvertently roleplayed.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

I should clarify my point in posting:
1) I am curious if my application of the Big Model here contains any errors.
2) For marketing reasons, I am also interested in the "line" between roleplaying games and other games.  "You've roleplayed already!" (or another form of "this ain't so alien") would be an interesting claim to be able to make to a non-self-identified-roleplayer audience.

I hope this is not an improper use of the Actual Play forum.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Eero Tuovinen

Such a great application of the forum!

The phenomenon you describe is very familiar, and I've discussed it a lot with other gamers. There are boardgames where the appeal is almost entirely about the SIS the game allows you to construct; a great example is Arkham Horror, which I got to play in January; it's all about the fiction inspired by the game and the enthusiastic players seem to pretty much be people who enjoy the Cthulhu mythos trappings of an otherwise rather trivial game. (Not bashing the game here; I'm one of those people and would certainly love to play the game more with an atmospheric crew and lots of time on my hands.) The most significant difference between that kind of boardgaming and a roleplaying game is that the fiction in the boardgame does not inform the mechanical procedures of play at all. What this means in practice is that the fiction is bounded into small bits that you smile at, perhaps exclaim out loud, appreciate as a group and then move away from, to continue with the boardgame structure. In games like Arkham Horror - that make this fictional level ("theme" as they call it in the boardgaming hobby) important - the understanding is that the rules will supply the players with more of the good stuff if they just continue following the rules rigorously.

As for your points:

If I've characterized the phenomenon you discuss correctly above (that is, I'm not discussing something completely different), then I'd say that you're basicly correct with your bigmodelese. I wouldn't necessarily agree that it is a good idea to take the existence and exploration of a SIS as a sufficient condition of labeling something "roleplaying", but I'd certainly concur that not only is the distinction between roleplaying and boardgaming capable of blurring, but the Big Model can also be adapted to analyze boardgaming dynamics to some degree.

The main point to consider here, when speaking of pure theory, is that when you're setting up a "roleplaying vs. boardgaming" dichotomy you're actually asserting (or at least implying) a category error: boardgaming as a historical concept just means playing a game that has physical components which are manipulated on the table, while roleplaying means playing a game where you manipulate (Explore) a SIS in communication with the other players. Take a game that does these both, and you have something that is technically both a boardgame and a roleplaying game. It's not even that difficult, we already have probably several roleplaying games that use a game board. I've even designed and published one myself.

Considering that category separation, it seems obvious to me that our best analytical course is to consider the act of boardgaming to always have the potentiality for constrained moments of roleplay in this theoretical sense; it is not at all illogical to remember here that roleplaying can be very transitive and ephemeral, appearing and disappearing in small fragments. If the existence of a SIS is considered a sufficient condition for the existence of roleplaying, then I can easily affirm that the great majority of the numerous boardgaming sessions I've participated in during the last year have involved some small bits of roleplaying. It is not at all uncommon for myself, for instance, to invent a small fictional vignette for the amusement of my co-players when something happens of the board, and when the other players comment on the fictional implications of the vignette, we have not only a SIS (created by me from the communication transmitted by the game board), but also system (in the form of other players adding detail in the SIS on a freeform basis). Of course, good form and the priorities of the game require us to abandon or at least sideline these developing fictional vignettes in favor of focusing on the game soon enough.

You see what I'm driving at? We can say that a session of a boardgame involved roleplaying activity on top or provoked by the boardgame without having to find a line between boardgames and roleplaying games. The roleplaying in that boardgaming session might be theoretically valid roleplaying (whatever your preferred definition for that is) even if it wasn't a roleplaying game or other large, coherent application. Just like you could roleplay while walking around (NIghttime Animals Save the World comes to mind), you might be able to roleplay while playing a boardgame.

(An interesting question to consider here: if the above phenomenon of enjoying a SIS while playing a boardgame is considered roleplaying, then what other activities apart from boardgames might have ephemeral roleplaying going on as a side-show? Why do boardgames provoke it while floorball doesn't? The only other activity with ephemeral roleplaying that I can name off-hand is bullshitting with friends, which occasionally goes into constructing fiction, perhaps in the form of elaborate bon mots or fictional stories about the supposed lives of ourselves and others.)

Of course, this is all verbalese that has little relevance for whether a boardgame can be roleplaying for you in your communication with your audience; there is no roleplaying police that has authoritatively defined what roleplaying is, so if you feel that the essential core property of roleplayingness is fulfilled by a game where the SIS is both an emergent and incidental property of something else, then you can well say that most boardgamers have already roleplayed. Of course, that might then be true of movie-goers as well, in a sense.

Regardless, I just wanted to say that this is something I've worked with myself lately. I'd find it very interesting to create a game that explicitly starts from where Arkham Horror and other such games are and goes as far into the fictional appeal as it can; would it be a roleplaying game? Who knows!
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

What Eero said.

I also use this logic relative to LARPing, in that the activity may include role-playing (or at least the thing I describe with the Big Model, whatever), but does not have to, nor is that necessarily a priority for at least some or even many of the people involved.

Best, Ron


I've encountered this recently as well, and I've been trying to wrap my brain around it.

Recently I played Red Dragon Inn, which is a card game simulating a party of adventurers relaxing after an outing: the object of the game is to be the last conscious person with gold at the table. There aren't any important roleplaying aspects to the game except one: when you play one of your cards, you're supposed to read the title of the card (which is written in first person text) out loud to the other players. So when I played a card, I'd say things like "Bad Pooky, don't drink that!", and "I don't think so!" This made the game experience for me, so much so that when other players played their cards without reading the titles, I found myself pointing out that they were breaking the rules. I don't know if it was technically roleplaying in any sense, but the sense of being in character had a lot to do with my enjoyment of the game, even though the other players weren't as into it as I was. (And I won, which always helps.)

We also played Witch Trial last week, in which you play lawyers prosecuting and defending charges against members of the community in order to amass the most legal fees. We had a lot of fun with the game, mostly because when we played cards during a trial it was frequently done dramatically, with the player stepping into the role of the lawyer rather than just slapping a card on the table and moving the game pieces. We had some speculation about whether or not it was roleplaying. I didn't think it was, because we weren't making decisions based upon the "characters" we were controlling, but rather off of what made the most sense toward winning the game. However, there was a definite element of drama that colored the game but wasn't important to resolving the play. So I'm not sure.

Curiously, when I've played Arkham Horror (mentioned above by Eero), this was completely missing. It became a tactical challenge, and I had no sense that I was the character I was playing. I had similar experiences with Betrayal on House at the Hill, despite hoping otherwise. Maybe that was because I felt roleplaying those characters would lead to unsound tactical choices, and be an impediment to winning the game. For whatever reason, the color mechanisms in both games fell very flat for me, and we largely skipped over the reading of the dramatic narratives in those games so as to get on with the rules.

This is an important issue for me, because one of my projects this year is to design a boardgame for Protospiel that includes--as much as possible--the entertainment of a good roleplaying experience, and I'd appreciate whatever guidance I can get toward making that work. So I was very excited to find this thread!