The Wind-Up Toy School of Design

The excellent Tim Koppang writes:
I wanted to comment on some of Eero's observations, specifically this idea of parlor narration and what he calls this bunch of "strongly structural story games." I have noticed that there are a lot of new(ish) games out there that subscribe to a similar design philosophy. At times I've derisively called it "wind-up toy" design. I realize that I use that term more as a way to express my personal preferences, and that a lot of people like this type of game (to each his own).

Typically, these games rely on a bunch of structured techniques that move the players through a set of somewhat scripted events. At the end, you have something you can call a story. There isn't as much room/need for the hard creative input that more open-ended designs provide. As a result, it seems to me that the games are less concerned about learning something thematically important about your fellow players as it is about simply sharing a common experience with them (i.e., playing the game). As Eero puts it, it's about the act of shared narration ("to tell stories and nothing more") more than any other creative goal.

Another common thing I've noticed is that these games all produce similar output with different groups of people. So if Group A plays the game, they can then talk about their experiences with Group B in a very similar way. It's not only about sharing the experience with the members of your own group, but about being able to describe a similar experience to everyone else who has played the game.

My questions are somewhat similar to Eero's. Why the trend toward this "wind-up" type design? What's the attraction? Is there a real desire for this type of play? Is it because it's creatively easier? Is it a board game influence?

My goal is not to bash anyone here, just to find out what's up.
Let's discuss this! As a wind-up toy fanboy I'd like to, anyway.
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Comments

  • To start: What is "thematically important"? "Hard creative input?" Terms like this speak to table preferences as much as anything. If you have working definitions, let's hear them, but I'm skeptical you can chalk this up to anything beyond personal taste.

    Here's something - I love the sense of shared experience. That has real value to me. Comparing notes on what Arsende did in two different games of Montsegur 1244 is really satisfying. I actively seek this out.

    Super interesting things to discuss, for sure.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarTo start: What is "thematically important"? "Hard creative input?" Terms like this speak to table preferences as much as anything. If you have working definitions, let's hear them, but I'm skeptical you can chalk this up to anything beyond personal taste.
    Thanks Jason. Let me start this out by answering your questions. Then I'll let others get the ball rolling before I jump all over this thread.

    First, when I said, "thematically important" I was talking about specifically narrativist design preferences. When I play, I want to engage with my fellow players and learn about them as people as we collaboratively unravel the premise of whatever game we're playing. Put another way, I don't want the game to spoon-feed me a theme or even let me choose a theme from a set of options. I want the theme to be unique to the group of people I'm playing with because we all have something to contribute creatively.

    "Hard creative input," is a bit wish-washy, I admit. I was referring to the fact that it is often difficult to contribute something to a game creatively. If you give me a character and a situation, I have to think creatively about what I want my character to do, and what proactive action I want to take. Contributing creatively and proactively is more difficult than letting the game guide me through a script.

    To be clear, I'm absolutely talking about my own preferences. However, when I say "wind-up toy" I'm not talking about just any game with pre-scripted events (e.g., The Roach). I'm talking specifically about games that are highly structured, tend to provide players with much of what they would otherwise be required to invent through narration, and also probably make use of at least some parlor narration.
  • Huh, see I assumed everything I've ever written would fall into your category (which would be fine, honest).

    So name some names, Tim - Montsegur 1244? Zombie Cinema? I can't really engage without knowing where the line is, for you, respecting that it is a subjective thing.
  • Yes, examples, please. At first I thought my games would fit totally inside your definition, but then I read this:
    Posted By: Tim C KoppangWhen I play, I want to engage with my fellow players and learn about them as people as we collaboratively unravel the premise of whatever game we're playing.
    ...which sounds like something I could have written myself about my recent play. So I'm confused :)
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarThe excellent Tim Koppang writes:
    Another common thing I've noticed is that these games all produce similar output with different groups of people. So if Group A plays the game, they can then talk about their experiences with Group B in a very similar way.
    For designers, don't undersell the attraction of being able to see "my game reliably does a thing!" In the world of RPGs, where so many games live or die on external GM skills, this is no small feat.

    This is also particularly satisfying if you've read too many words from Ron Edwards on how a lot of popular games are basically broken, leaving players to make the game work. You can then say, "Well my game works on its own! Dude! I'm better than the Werewolf game that's sold thousands of copies!"

    Personally, I hope that "my game does a thing!" can serve as a stepping stone to making games that do cooler and cooler things. I like wind-up toy games, but they have provided 0% of my top RPG experiences. (Not that I share Tim's tastes: "learn about fellow players through tackling premise" has only a slightly higher percentage.)
  • Could it be that we see wind-up game designs appearing as a means of facilitating (forcing?) wind-up roleplaying style?

    Like...I definitely see wind-up play style at our BW table but only among some players. Some of them are pretty much Deists -- their investment isn't in seeing their characters succeed, but in seeing what becomes of their character based on inputs provided at the beginning. So their experiment isn't "can I succeed because of, or despite, design choices at the beginning?" but rather "what story will emerge from these design choices?"

    I could certainly see the attraction of building a game along those latter lines, especially as a means of reliably producing a play experience based on your own assumptions of what is fun.
  • Sometimes I don't wanna work that hard. Does that make me a bad person?

    Is there a Calvinist Play Ethic?
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarHere's something - I love the sense of shared experience. That has real value to me. Comparing notes on what Arsende did in two different games of Montsegur 1244 is really satisfying. I actively seek this out.
    A lot of really popular and long-lived D&D modules produce the same sense of community, people love that stuff. I always made people completely aghast at what I did with them, as I recall.
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarHuh, see I assumedeverything I've ever writtenwould fall into your category (which would be fine, honest).

    So name some names, Tim - Montsegur 1244? Zombie Cinema? I can't really engage without knowing where the line is, for you, respecting that it is a subjective thing.
    A fair request indeed, even if it always makes me uncomfortable to start classifying other people's games in print.

    Let me start historically based on some of the games I've actually played.

    Capes kicked off my thinking on this subject. It doesn't have the highly structured format that many modern games have, but it does have a fairly scripted combat system. I often felt like the system was doing all the work for me.

    Jason, your games have always been interesting to me. The more I think about it, the more the Roach seems like a tipping point in my mind. The first game of Roach I played felt very much like a wind-up design. The players all went though the different scenes narrating wild and crazy events, but no one really engaged on any deeper level. No one went "off script". Everyone just let the cards and the system hold their hand throughout.*

    Now, I've also seen very different sessions of the Roach, where player contributions were intense and unique. So despite my previous post, I suppose this one could go either way for me. What's really interesting about the Roach is that I think it inspired a lot of future designs. Designers and players saw the highly scripted structure and started to lean on it as a stand-in for player contributions.

    Grey Ranks I've never had the same problem with, but that may be because the theme is so strong. While there is certainly structure, it always acted more as a signpost, or as inspiration, rather than as a creative stand-in. Not surprisingly, I think Grey Ranks is a much stronger design.

    Hmmm... let's see. Zombie Cinema is not wind-up toy design. The board is really a misnomer in this respect. The game is all about creating pc vs. pc interactions. The game doesn't feed you anything. You have to bring the conflict to the table yourself or else the game simply won't do anything. Love it.

    Montsegur 1244 I haven't played. I've read reviews and always wrote it off as wind-up design. That doesn't mean I don't want to play it (in fact, I'd really like to try it). But all the pre-scripted cards, scenes, character, etc., make me suspicious (perhaps unfairly).

    So I guess, now that I've thought about this a bit more, my big question is always going to be: "How much does a particular game design expect of me creatively?" Are the players along for the (often fun) ride, or are they expected/required to drive the action forward via their creative input?

    I'll see if I can't think of some additional examples to help this along.


    * Ok, so "hold their hand" may sound a bit derogatory, but I can't think of any better way to describe that particular session.
  • Can I interrupt here to get a clearer definition of "wind-up design," please? What are its telltale qualities? What are its advantages and shortcomings? I'd like to get a stronger sense of what you all are taking as foundational information before I continue lurking in earnest. :)
  • Coming in from the side, here -

    The people that i have had the chance to play with often don't tend to be on the same page. It's nice to have story seeds to get us all pointed the right way. When there's a very specific way the characters are supposed to interact, given the setting (ie professors in the Roach, castle-dwellers in Montsegur) and a rich culture that they're in the middle of... especially a culture that my friends and i have next to no knowledge of... and we don't have the inclination to do a bunch of background research... well, i'm glad for the guidance.

    Without those training wheels, it would just be "My professor does a jump kick!" "Arsende does a jump kick!" ...or at least "i don't know what this character would do in this situation. Um. I guess i go talk to one of the other players?"

    /meandering.

    -jackson
  • No Jackson, you're right on. I like to have that stuff too, just the right amount of prompting material, color and inspiration, so I can grab it, inform the situation with it, and hit the ground running. I don't want to make people read up on seventeenth century Venetian politics*, I want them to jump in and chew the scenery and have fun with the props I left laying around.

    This is very different from the extended campaign mode of play, where discovery and (what's the analog to system mastery?) color mastery are part of the fun.

    *Even though they should
  • edited July 2010
    Tim, I'm still not 100% sure what you're criticizing here, but in my mind a lot of the games you seem to be describing simply provide some of the "campaign design" or "scenario design" elements that have traditionally been performed by players (and GMs), including character creation, setting design, premise, etc. If you'd rather have a hand in crafting those, that's cool. But sometimes I just want to have everybody on the same page without having to go through the brainstorming process. In fact, after playing Mist-Robed Gate at Go Play NW, I'm working on an Atlantis Playset, just so we don't have to spend an hour or more brainstorming and making characters before we can start playing.

    However, even in very constrained games, I don't find that players are going through the motions or are along for the ride or anything. Quite the contrary: in my experience players in highly constrained games can be just as explorative and creative as players in more open games, because the campaign or scenario elements are a departure point, not a destination. So maybe I'm just not seeing the problem that you're seeing. Sure, players can always just follow along in games, without being fully engaged, right? Is there something about highly constrained games that leads you to believe that kind of behavior is more likely, in those cases?
  • For some reason I have the feeling that I've seen a lot of these sorts of games with a defined, short running time, in comparison to non-wind-ups.

    If this is related, I think it might be a big draw, too. There's a market for games that will reliably run about four hours, or whatever.
  • I don't have the time to engage this in depth now, but I'll say that everything Tim describes seems to match my own experiences and thinking - he's seeing the same thing I am. Naming published, finished games with these qualities is somewhat difficult because these designs don't often make it too far beyond eager initial playtests; perhaps this is because there's little incentive for repeat play, I don't know. In design competitions this sort of thing is pretty common, which is why I was inspired to talk about it in the other thread in the first place.

    Montsegur is pretty close to a wind-up toy, but it's not actually quite there - the game has a solid core in the end-game where the players choose which characters will escape, which burn for their beliefs and which recant. I often say that the game's my favourite Nordic freeform design because I can sort of see why you're playing it, as the entire process of play can be interpreted as a necessity for finding out which characters belong in which category - other designs in that particular culture sometimes seem to stray into wind-up territory in that there seems to be no reason for playing the game aside from the basic joy of getting to make a story. I'd name names, but these are small and sometimes frivolous things, I don't really know if they're always meant to be entirely serious as games, even.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonSure, players can always just follow along in games, without being fully engaged, right? Is there something about highly constrained games that leads you to believe that kind of behavior is more likely, in those cases?
    In short, yes.

    First of all, let me say that all games have to provide some sort of initial setting, character, situation, etc. material. Some games obviously provide more, and when it works as a jumping off point, great. My own games, Hero's Banner and Mars Colony, load up the players with situation and/or setting material. The question then becomes, where does the game take you from there? Does the game expect the players to take all of that material and form it into something new that drives the story forward? Or does the game allow the players to simply add some inconsequential narration on the way to the next "checkpoint", where the game will feed the players some additional material?

    Second, a highly constrained game does not necessarily mean that the players won't grab the reigns and drive the game. But a highly constrained game certainly affords more opportunity for the players to simply ride along and enjoy the very act of playing the game together as a group.

    Finally, I don't want to make this thread into a big criticism of why I think one way is better than the other. That could quickly get nasty. I'm not interested in that. I, like Eero in the previous thread, have simply noticed a trend towards more "wind-up toy" design. I'm wondering why. If you disagree that such a trend exists, that's ok too.
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Will HindmarchCan I interrupt here to get a clearer definition of "wind-up design," please? What are its telltale qualities? What are its advantages and shortcomings? I'd like to get a stronger sense of what you all are taking as foundational information before I continue lurking in earnest. :)
    Will, I suggest reading Eero's comment in the previous thread (as well as Jason's initial post in that thread) for some background. Other than that, I think you can see that I'm still trying to tease out the details myself. Unfortunately, I don't have any sort of institutional definition for you.
  • Tim: I totally get that you're noticing a trend rather than criticizing a play style. It's certainly an emerging area of design, but I don't think it's going to take over other kinds of design any time soon. It's somewhat related to the rise of "hacks" in the indie community and the idea that not every cool game concept needs to (or deserves to be) a stand-alone game. Sometimes you just want to hack something together and play it right now. And the most recently highly constrained scenarios are sometimes a result from that kind of approach, though stuff like Grey Ranks and Montsegur and Zombie Cinema are clearly coming from a different place.
    Posted By: Tim C KoppangDoes the game expect the players to take all of that material and form it into something new that drives the story forward? Or does the game allow the players to simply add some inconsequential narration on the way to the next "checkpoint", where the game will feed the players some additional material?
    So... in play and in following APs and watching other people play, it's ALWAYS been the former for me, never the latter. I guess I'm still unsure you're talking about the same games that I'm thinking about. Lady Blackbird, for example, is universally an example of the first type there. The characters and initial situation is the same every time, but there are no further checkpoints or bits of story after that. Everything MUST come from the players' decisions and how the GM responds to those decisions. Are there other games that are structured, step by step, towards a fixed ending, that are bothering you more? I mean, Montsegur has a fixed ending, but the central premise of the game is what that ending means and how those events play out, which you can only find out through playing the game. So in practice I don't think it's stifling or promoting of creative laziness on the part of the players.
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Tim C KoppangBut a highly constrained game certainly affords more opportunity for the players to simply ride along and enjoy the very act of playing the game together as a group.
    I find this interesting because my experiences with "GM as Entertainer" were meant to be exactly the same thing. As far as I could tell, my role as a non-GM in those games was to enjoy the ride and participate minimally. In fact, the more creative I was, the more I ruined everyone else's fun.

    I'm not sure where I'm going with that, particularly because I've not sure I've ever felt like I was playing in a wind-up toy game. I say not sure because I think I'd have to look a little closer at my play history to see if that was the case or not.
  • edited July 2010
    I think one of my own creations Spirited (made for Little Game Chef 09) is about as far into wind-up toy as you can get. It does one thing, there's almost no room for variation within it. There isn't a lot exploration of the themes, it's just, here's your challenge, guess the solution, see the reaction, repeat. There aren't even character names. I can also say that Spirited is not about players sharing their different experiences of play. It's intended to be a private experience between two people.

    So, what does this design do? In the case of Spirited, the game is a mask for the players to say one thing to each other, "I like it when you...." After the game ends, there is the hope that the game is set aside and the players face one another directly. If the game were more involved or ongoing, it would be harder to set aside. That's not going to be representative of wind-up toy style games as a whole, but disposability is a potentially usable feature of the style (if I understand the style correctly).

    I made Spirited this way in order to accomodate the suggestion to make a 2-page game. I hate broad, vague games, so I figured I'd try to do a very narrow one in greater detail. I'll admit it didn't really succeed. Live and learn.
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Tim C KoppangDoes the game expect the players to take all of that material and form it into something new that drives the story forward? Or does the game allow the players to simply add some inconsequential narration on the way to the next "checkpoint", where the game will feed the players some additional material?
    In M1244, both experiences are supported. Active players who contribute material that compels the table will have the first experience. More passive players, or players waiting for inspiration, or even active players who introduce material that in hindsight was inconsequential, will have the second experience.

    Both experiences can be had by different players in a single play session, or even by one player in the same session. I've kicked off entire multi-act lines of conflict in M1244 with a single scene. In the same games, I've contributed stuff that definitely would've been buried under the Deleted Scenes menu in Montsegur: The Motion Picture.
    Posted By: Tim C KoppangBut a highly constrained game certainly affords more opportunity for the players to simply ride along and enjoy the very act of playing the game together as a group.
    Respectfully, I disagree. A quiet player in Montsegur 1244 will make certain storylines difficult to pursue -- for instance, it's tough to really rock the Cecile / Esclairmonde religion storyline if you don't have active players in both roles. Ride-along players who want an audience experience more than an author experience may also struggle to establish and arbitrate their own spotlight scenes. A single player who struggles at scene-setting can bottleneck the entire game.

    I suspect that if the majority of the play group is riding along, waiting to be entertained, then the play session won't be very satisfying for anyone.

    However, more traditional RPGs, like D&D, have evolved tolerance for quieter 'ride-along' players, to the point where the DMG and PHB call that out as a valid play style, deserving of accommodation.
    Posted By: J. WaltonI mean, Montsegur has a fixed ending, but the central premise of the game iswhat that ending meansandhow those events play out, which you can only find out through playing the game. So in practice I don't think it's stifling or promoting of creative laziness on the part of the players.
    Montsegur is somewhat event-y. The Acts are broken up by season, each with a flavor and a feel. And the story cards are (random and optional) events that appear to be intended as helpful prompts for creatively stymied players.
  • I think a good question would be where Lady Blackbird actually does fit into this whole discussion. I have read many APs that played out similarly. Some have been somewhat divergent, and some of the fun for me with reading APs is to see where the play differs for different groups. It is a game with a pretty involved situation, the setting is minimally constrained in the text but the list of inspirations and use of common tropes narrows how divergent setting conceptions become, and there is a list of encounters provided in the text. The ending scene is even given for those who choose to go there, and since this is the initial question posed by the game, many groups do go there. Since the motivations of the characters are even given through Keys, the characters often are played similarly between games.

    That said, LB has a lot of room for divergent play, nothing is actually dictated after the situation is set in motion, and exploration can leave a very rich potential for narrative exploration. And it is obviously very popular. And some of the language in this thread has even been used to talk about it in very positive terms to explain it's success. And the number of Hackbird threads out there on the intewebs indicates that people want the same experience with different situations.

    OK, back to lurking.
  • The problem of this thread is that there isn't still even one example of a "wind-up toy" rpg named in the entire thread...

    As others have already said, Montsegur 1244 (the only one "maybe" named) isn't anything of the sort: hell, if I should find some problem in it, it's that require players really engaged and proactive to work well, it doesn't work by itself at all

    I don't want to start the annual "we should have more criticism of games" flamefest in story-games, this year, but really... how it's possible to talk about problematic game designs, without naming games?
  • I think there are already innumerable books that Tim can have fun with. maybe it's possible Tim should join a good improve troop. i love improve.

    I think "wind up toy" is simply a bad description of what games are. Games like LCR and candy land could be called wind up toys but even then they are incredibly complex wind up toys. And don't ignore why those two games are popular, try to understand what people like about them without being a cynical ass about it.

    In fact look up LCR, ok fine I will look it up for you. http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/3522/lcr

    understanding why that game is outrageously popular (and it's not just the gambling) is like snatching a pebble from batman's hand.
  • edited July 2010
    Contest designed games are often GM-less/GM-full*. I'm not sure why. Perhaps there is kudos there, perhaps their favourite Story Games are GM-less, etc.

    John Aegard makes an interesting point above about quiet players riding through the experience in games like D&D. There are passive players in traditional gaming circles who do sit back and wait to be prompted. Sometimes the most exciting moments for these players is the what do you want to do? moment. Specifically, it is the question that excites, not just the room to speak or the awareness that contribution is possible and encouraged. It's something to do with a cumulative build-up of direct, personalised constraint. Designers who are designing for Story Games often create GM-less designs**. The questions (the constraints) must come from elsewhere. How do you ask a question from a player in a GM-less game? Do we tend to let the group handle it or tend to let the mechanics handle it? Games that tend toward the former might be less wind-up, while games that tend toward the latter might be more wind-up. It seems to me that the surest way to ask those questions is to go for the latter. That may not be true, but it curbed my design decision for the Little Game Chef this year.

    Taking out the GM might influence a game's premise. If we examine the GM role and understand it as the provider of the storytelling plateau, taking out the GM asks a designer to think about how to create that plateau without the GM role. This might be relevant to the wind-up issue. In other words, if I see the GM as the instigator of story/threat/setting, what do I think will instigate without a GM? Collective world-building? A set-piece scenario? What kind of story will be told, should it be constrained, who is in charge of how the story is chosen, etc? Omitting the GM asks questions like these.

    In my design, I've tried to omit the GM but in doing-so, I've created an automaton to replace the omission.

    *I can't back that up with evidence, just my own exposure.
    ** By designers, I mean "me."
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Moreno R.The problem of this thread is that there isn't still even one example of a "wind-up toy" rpg named in the entire thread..
    I'm curious why you believe Spirited isn't a wind-up toy rpg, since that's the one I named. Here's a copy of what I submitted back then, for those who don't have it.
  • edited July 2010
    Hey Tim, I'm with Renato Moreno. Maybe you can use the Little Game Chef entries as your whipping post, since they signed up for it. I really need an example I can sink my teeth into for this to make sense. I understand that we are not making value judgments, but I am just not getting what you are objecting to.
    "How much does a particular game design expect of me creatively?" Are the players along for the (often fun) ride, or are they expected/required to drive the action forward via their creative input?
    My feeling - and design sensibility - is that you can choose what to provide as creative constraint and what you leave open for the players to build themselves. There's a traditional model for this, but that's only one approach. Montsegur (which I think you would like, Tim) gives you a rigid timeline and a preset group of characters and R-map. Many games would put those into the hands of the group, but Montsegur focuses your creative energies elsewhere to good effect. Because that stuff is provided, you can't help but focus on other stuff for your creative contribution. You are not less creative. With tight constraints, passive play is a train wreck.
  • If we still need examples, may I offer Happy Birthday, Robot! as an example of wind-up in the extreme?

    The situation of play is always the same: The events of Robot's birthday.
    It is very, very structured: You literally write a story with friends, but with a limited number of words.
    Experiences can be compared between groups: Each story begins the same way, often following similar emergent themes.
    There is no role-playing: No one has exclusive control over any particular character.

    These are all intentional features of the game's design, but people (and kids) still seem to enjoy it. Feel free to use it as an extreme example, even if derisively.
  • Tim raises a number of questions in the initial post: "Why the trend toward this "wind-up" type design? What's the attraction? Is there a real desire for this type of play? Is it because it's creatively easier? Is it a board game influence?"

    I think post #12 by jackson and post #15 by Roger answer the central questions pretty well:
    * A focused game can help put people on the same page.
    * A focused game can have a reliable short running time.

    These features are attractive especially, when playing with a group of people who do not know each other well.

    As for board game influence, I can confirm that Montsegur 1244 is inspired by how high quality board games support the first time play experience.
  • Examples of games that, at the very least, veer into wind-up territory:

    The Roach - (see my post above).

    Montsegur 1244 - the more I hear the more I think this is pretty wind-up, but again, I haven't played it yet (and I may very well enjoy it).

    Lady Blackbird - this one isn't 100%, but I think Lee brings up some solid points. Even without checkpoints, the pre-set Keys and other material allow players to avoid bringing their own creative input to the table.

    The Mustang - pretty much set characters, set situation, set everything. Even the themes are pretty much set. (Compare the Mustang with Ghost/Echo, which is very open).

    Maybe Eero or Jason could help me out with some of the contest entries from the previous thread. I'll also try to go back and re-read some of those games. We can talk about Spirited (mentioned above) some more if you'd like as well.

    Jonathan's point about hacks is interesting to me. For some of these games, it's almost more as if different groups are all playing the same one-sheet, with the same or very similar characters. I don't have a problem with this per se, but it makes play less individually rewarding (for me) because I feel like I'm working though someone else's interpretation of a theme instead of coming up with my own.

    As for Tyler's post above wherein he suggests I try improv and all that, thank you, but you're missing the point. I think if you re-read my previous posts, you'll see that I'm not being cynical: I'm trying to understand.

    I say all this to try to get back to my original questions:

    What's the attraction? Is there a real desire for this type of play? Is it because it's creatively easier? Is it a board game influence?
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Tim C KoppangWhat's the attraction? Is there a real desire for this type of play? Is it because it's creatively easier? Is it a board game influence?
    The attraction for me isn't any different, the constraints have just been moved. Instead of providing the Forgotten Realms and giving me freedom to make a barbarian and do whatever I want, Frederik provided Montsegur and a tight, fraught situation and gave me freedom to do one thing with murderous intensity. It is emphatically not creatively easier. I cannot imagine where this idea comes form.

    My point is that every game, every setting, every GM provides material that explicitly blocks creative input. In Forgotten Realms it is a massive tome that tells you the backstory of the entire world. No player has creative input on that. This is a constraint, just like pre-set characters, pre-authored Keys, whatever. The energy and attention are focused differently.
  • Does the Mountain Witch count as a wind-up design?
  • Posted By: Tim C KoppangWhat's the attraction? Is there a real desire for this type of play? Is it because it's creatively easier? Is it a board game influence?
    I'm sorry Tim, but a lot of what you're descibing as wind up play sounds awfully familiar to me. Frankly, it sounds a good bit like the sorts of one-shot, scenario LARPs I hear about from talking with folks in the Australian convention scene ( vulpinoid is the point guy for questions about that hereabouts) and among British gamers. Usually the term LARP isn't used though (which I guess tends to mean something more like boffer LARPs). I think "Freeform" is more common.

    If I'm correct, I'll try to answer just for myself:

    The attraction:
    We're talking about participating in a one-time event, over a relatively short period of real-world time. This is more like RPG-as-Movie, than RPG-as-Book or as-Serial.

    For the players, there's a bunch of stuff right up front to latch onto. For the designer, there's a commitment to just this one event, this one scenario.

    Is there a real desire for this type of play?
    Yes, there really is. One shot with almost immediate play? Oh hell yeah. Why wouldn't there be? The fact that people apparently do regularly play this kind of stuff kinda points to that, doesn't it?

    Is it because it's creatively easier?
    I'm not at all sure it's creatively easier at all for the designers, although I'm sure practice and playing in some makes it easier.

    For the players? Yeah, I think there's some truth to that, but I expect folks see that as a plus not a negative.

    Is it boardgame influence?
    Possibly, but not I expect the way you mean it there. For many people, boardgames sorta define what a game is: They have starts, stops, and are relatively easy to pick up and engage with. So yes, for a player, and perhaps non-hobbyists gamers, this short scenario one-shot format with lots of world, situation, and character building ( with built in goals and characteriztion suggestions) really is much closer to what a "game" is like than a lot of RPGs or storygames.

    The other question: Why are you noticing them coming up more?

    I don't really know. Maybe because there is an unspoken feeling that game contest games need not ever be turned into for-sale items, and that allows a different sort of approach to games? I mean, you don't really have to worry about replay value at all, do you?

    Beyond that, the more Wind-Up ( or One shot, scenario-based, involving characters in conflict, etc) a game is, the less a designer has any need to show the background work or write rules for it. They can get right to the meat of the thing in what is presented

    As for a question of whether all this stuff is really just geared to getting players together to tell stories together successfully, well I'd quibble on the phrase "telling stories together ( I think it tends more in the Play Act at being characters in a certain situation more than telling stories, for example). I couldn't think of any better goal however.

    Frankly, I find the idea that folks want to use RPGs to learn some deep secrets about themselves or other participants to be intrusive and creeepy.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarMany games would put those into the hands of the group, but Montsegur focuses your creative energies elsewhere to good effect. Because that stuff is provided, you can't help but focus on other stuff for your creative contribution.
    I like this point. If a game provides one thing completely, then it can force players to fill in the gaps that exist elsewhere -- a niffty bit of redirection. Yes. This is certainly the intent and ideal for many games. I agree with you.

    But when does a tight focus become a substitution for creative contribution? Don't you think that some of these games encourage or at least allow for a certain play-style that values the game providing much of what would otherwise form the basis for a more open and shared experience between the players? Many of these games are very neat in what they accomplish, and can be quite fun. They also seem to curtail (perhaps even stifle in some situations) the extent to which the players have to engage with each other creatively.

    So I guess to one extent I'm talking about passivity (and I'd like to address the related D&D comments in another post), but I'm also talking about my personal desire to engage in a creative dialogue, through story, that is driven by the players instead of the game.

    Look at Zombie Cinema. You have a board and all these neat bits. The characters are inspired by a deck of cards. And of course you have this zombie invasion each game. But when a group starts to play, they are going to realize that nothing is going to move forward unless they start engaging with one another. The game doesn't feed the players inter-character conflicts. Those have to come from the players.

    The very act of creating one of these conflicts requires me to make something up. Whatever I make up may suck. It may be great. I don't know. It's a somewhat scary thing to put myself out there like that. And, in other games, it's when I know that I can rely on the game to provide some or all of these creative contributions for me that I start thinking about "wind-up" style play.

    (Man, I hope this is clarifying instead of confusing. I didn't realize I had so much to say on the topic.)
  • Posted By: komradebobI'm sorry Tim, but a lot of what you're descibing as wind up play sounds awfully familiar to me. Frankly, it sounds a good bit like the sorts of one-shot, scenario LARPs I hear about from talking with folks in the Australian convention scene...
    No need to apologize, geez. Actually, you're post is a perfectly reasonable answer to my questions. So thank you. Lots to think about.
  • Another bonus from the perspective of players for wind-up toys is that they are much less intimidating to GM for the first time. I think people underestimate a certain level of fear that a GM in the general public has in playing a new game. Being a GM, in some ways, is a type of performance art in which "not being prepared" weighs heavily against the performer in the eyes of the audience.

    I submit that if you gave two games to an average gaming group, one a wind-up toy and the other not, and instructed them to pick one of them to play for three sessions, the GMs will favor the wind-up game by a much larger margin than the players would.
  • Let's keep this respectful of personal preferences, OK? We're not assigning value to any approach, or at least we shouldn't.
  • Posted By: Tim C KoppangThe very act of creating one of these conflicts requires me to make something up. Whatever I make up may suck. It may be great. I don't know. It's a somewhat scary thing to put myself out there like that. And, in other games, it's when I know that I can rely on the game to provide some or all of these creative contributions for me that I start thinking about "wind-up" style play.
    Well, back to Montsegur, which doesn't even have conflict rules. It barely has rules, and certainly none regarding what constitutes an acceptable scene. If you want things to happen, you have to make them happen yourself, working with the structure and prompts provided.

    Tim, what's a game that provides no creative contributions for you? Besides Universalis, which isn't a roleplaying game (grin).
  • Here are some other considerations:

    1. How do we distinguish "wind-up" from "ease of play"? For instance, is playing D&D with a randomly-generated dungeon (or even a module) "wind-up play"?

    I'm thinking particularly of something like Dogs in the Vineyard, which even has this long checklist. If you understand what's in the book, you can pretty much mechanically move through all the steps of play and reliably get a Dogs experience. But each step requires a strong creative contribution of some sort from someone, so I don't think you would consider it "wind-up". I do, though, in the same way as a D&D dungeon crawl: there are easy-to-follow directions to a predictable sort of fun.

    So, what's "wind-up" and what's just a strong tool for a certain result?

    2. As for designers and contests, I think there's a certain bias built-in to the contest format. When you're writing a game, you know in the back of your mind that your game will be short (due to time constraints, and not to tax the judges' patience too much), and probably just read, not played. And almost certainly not played by a lot of people over a long period of time.

    So maybe there's a push to write games that really communicate as much as possible of what they're about and how they play from the written page? If you're designing a simple game with deceptively complex long-term emergent properties (like Go), you might be afraid that the judges won't notice. I mean, if it takes several years of play by various groups to learn what your game's about, there's a good chance the judges won't be able to spot that and see its value. More creative contribution-heavy, more freeform games tend to have more complex unpredictable properties that emerge through, I would think, than a more mechanical design.

    I've been looking at Jason Morningstar's game hack "Death School" recently, and one thing it does REALLY well is communicate to you pretty much exactly what the game's going to look like from a single read-through. I mean, there are even stock lines for each character to read out, and particular events and actions for each character to take, so you quickly get a sense of what the game's about and how it will look (like a certain type of American blockbuster movie). And I think that's a real strength of its design: it's not about coming up with the coolest character, say, but about how skillfully you will deliver those lines (for example). We all KNOW that the Redshirt characters will sacrifice their lives for the sake of the mission--but we don't know how or when, that's something we craft together at the table. Very different from, say, Archipelago.
  • This is probably going to sound even more inflammatory, but I think a metaphor that might be more gripping than "wind-up toy" is "paint-by-numbers kit".

    No, seriously; I'm not trying to bash anything. But let's look at a paint-by-numbers kit:

    1. You have a good idea, more or less, what you'll end up with at the end of the experience.

    2. You have a good idea, more or less, how you'll get there.

    3. There's still lots of room for skill; at the end of the day, some people's finished kit is going to be better executed than others.


    Unfortunately for my metaphor, as far as I know, there's only the two extremes: A paint-by-numbers kit, and a blank canvas. I'm not aware of anything that occupies the range of space between those two poles.

    Fortunately for story games, there's lots of games on the spectrum, from ones that recommend colour palettes, to ones that recommend subject material, etc etc. I've probably pushed the metaphor far enough.


    Maybe clay and sculpting is better; there you have tools like extruders, which give you a lot of the identical form; push molds, which give you bits and pieces in the same form; throwing wheels, which offer a degree of freedom but also a number of constraints, etc etc. And also those places where the bisque pieces are all ready and you show up to glaze them. So hmmm.


    Oh yeah -- I guess I should have a point to all this. My point is that in other creative fields, there's a wide range of types of activities that utilize similar skill sets to various degrees, and offer various degrees of constraints and freedoms.
  • Paul and Roger, great comments. I like where your minds are at. Unfortunately, I can't say anything more right now. But I'll be pondering.
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: RogerUnfortunately for my metaphor, as far as I know, there's only the two extremes: A paint-by-numbers kit, and a blank canvas. I'm not aware of anything that occupies the range of space between those two poles.
    Bob Ross kits.
  • Wordman -- thanks; interesting stuff (if tangential.)

    I will say one thing about whether it's easier or harder or whatever to create a wind-up game:

    If nothing else, it's easier to perceive if you've succeeded or failed in your design goals.

    My appreciation of the value of that continues to grow.
  • Here's what's bugging me.

    Tim, you said that you're noticing this design trend in "a lot" of games-- to the extent that it needs it's own jargon word and a discussion thread. But then you can't really name any games. Maybe two (one of which isn't even a full RPG, just the resolution of a single scene). Not what I would call a trend, and certainly not "a lot."

    You're also making all sorts of assumptions about how play in these games goes, without trying it for yourself.

    So... huh? I don't get it. This just looks like noise to me. Or, if I'm being cynical, "wind up toy" is just code for "game whose creative constraints I don't like."
  • John,

    I think there are more than half a dozen games named specifically in this thread. My original comment was also referring specifically to Little Game Chef game entrants based on the comments of Jason and Eero. How many more do you want me to call out?

    Yes, it's true, some of the games mentioned, I haven't played. But many I have. To be honest, I could name more games if I called out the ones I haven't played, but that doesn't seem wise to me. I've avoided games that fit some of the descriptions I've detailed above. Now I want to know what I've been missing.

    Yes, I am making assumptions, which is why I phrased my original comment in the form of a question -- I'm trying to learn. Also, please note that my original comment was actually made in an entirely different thread, and I'm not actively advocating for broad use of some new jargon term.

    Is it obvious that I need to play Montsegur? Definitely. (Gen Con game anyone?) Also, please please note that I have not said that these games or this play style is objectively "bad". Do I have preferences, sure. So what?

    As for the term, "wind-up toy", I admitted fully in my original comment that it's original use was derisive -- and that I had since realized that I was in fact simply expressing a personal opinion. So it's not as if I haven't been up front here... right?
  • edited July 2010
    Hey, here's an interesting take I think I have on it.

    Joe Prince and I collaborated on his Hell 4 Leather, which I think is pretty awesome. (The PDF is $4 and you can grab the print copy for $5 at the Design Matters Booth -- #2100 -- at GenCon.)

    It fits what I think Tim in seeing, but... I think it's not a Narr design so it doesn't address a premise at all. Is that where some of the dislocation might be? I would say that the point of Hell 4 Leather is to experience/explore a tale of revenge. (I'm sure that it's Right to Dream stuff.)

    It's hardwired in that The Fool will try for Revenge. It's hardwired in that all of the Leathers were at least complicit in the murder of the Fool (some more so than others if they wish to grab Guilt Boons). It's hardwired in that there will be a Prologue, 6 Scenes, and an Epilogue. Parts of the resolution are "X says what happens" (because a particular card was picked), while other parts are free play allowing for immersion in character and revealing motives/relationships to your own satisfaction.

    So, I think it's super tight, it has a pretty clear path to this is how we're going to play it out. But... how you play it out? Up to you. How you play your character? Up to you. Can you find out about your fellow players? Maybe, they'll bring a different sort of creative contribution than Tim is talking about though. It's their colour, enthusiasm and wit that their bringing. Not their take on a premise or commentary on whether Revenge is right or wrong, not whether the crime someone has committed deserved their revenge in any deep sense.

    Does that make sense?

    I think it's a hot game and it strongly hits a bunch of buttons. It also has a fairly open view of creating the colour for the situation -- but that type and nature of that situation is hardcoded into the game, if that makes sense?

    Tim, I will totally hit you with a game of Hell 4 Leather at GenCon. I have a rad Mage: The Ascension tarot deck and it's super easy to play. Just bring your enthusiasm and be ready to revel in a game of bloody revenge on Devil's Night.

    Edited to fix where I am an idiot!
  • edited July 2010
    Could you point to something that is decidedly not a "wind up toy"?

    Can you tell me what you like about what this thing offers?

    Is it simply that you want something that offers nothing? something that gives to absolute freedom to critique, deride, love, and change because it, itself is nothing.

    Maybe your favorite game is an empty composition notebook.

    While that is a joke, it's also not. I played "composition notebook" for years. I play moleskine now, those damn lines in the composition system kept getting in my way.
  • Oh, that's easy for me to answer Tyler (and maybe I can mention Tim's game so he doesn't have to). Tim's new game Mars Colony has a structure to it that is a group of scenes and a resolution at the end. The initial situation is that you are Kelly Perkins and you are on Mars Colony to fix it, you have only a slim chance of achieving that.

    But the players have to bring their own real world opinions and views on politics to it. You have to engage in a very human way (or that's what I found) with the problems and choices the game will throw up. So, yes, it has a nailed down starting point and rules for clearly progressing through scenes to achieving resolution. But, it allows you an absolute window onto yourself and your fellow player to make a story that is clearly created by your opinions (whether consciously or subconsciously). You still have to turn the wheels in play, the game won't do that for you.

    That's my take on Mars Colony. Is that how you see Mars Colony, Tim?
  • edited July 2010
    Gregor, you're my hero. Can we go through and plug all of the Design Matters booth games? :-) And yes, your take on Mars Colony is correct.

    Tyler, I've also talked about Zombie Cinema and Ghost/Echo above. I'm not looking for nothing. Creative restraints are good. Priming the creative pump is good. I'm talking about something else (not that that something else is bad, just to say it again).
  • ok I think I understand what your getting at. ghost/echo is a fascinating piece of paper. this reminds me of something i heard about recently called a "light novel".

    A light novel is a form of writing that I hear only exist in japan. It's written in short passages that describe a scene or an action along with a line of dialog, it's usually read by children who have read so much manga that each passage in a light novel can be constructed into a comic panel in the readers mind. It's like they are reading the script of a comic book.

    so perhaps what you are looking for is something similar? you have read so many RPGs that all you want is an out line of how to play one? the details can be constructed as you read that outline?
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