So every once in a while we talk about two broad-based philosophies of game design, that being (a) designing for what matters in your game, and (b) designing away what doesn't matter in your game. So if you wanted to design a game for, I dunnno, clan-based politics, following the Design What Matters method would provide mechanical support for players manipulating relationships with others, forwarding their beliefs, convincing others, maybe blackmail and skullduggery, that sort of thing. Following the Design What Doesn't Matter method you provide mechanical support for combat, buying things, travel times, and maybe some wilderness encounters. Assuming that the players know what the game is supposed to be about (which is a different matter entirely), two groups using the two games will end up playing something roughly similar in content. If the end result is the same, what's the big deal? You have to go into a little more detail to find out.

Design What Matters

"Okay, you want this? Here's some tools to do that."

Design What Matters says, "Okay, you want this? Here's some tools to do that." It provides explicit and relatively exacting instructions on how to pick and hit that target. These designs are usually highly idiosyncratic, focused, and balanced. As such, they are either resistent to kit-bashing and house ruling or fall apart when subjected to such treatment. Someone once called them "Designer Games" which is pretty accurate, not in the sense of designer jeans, but in the sense of designer drugs. They're built for a finely-sharpened purpose. Typically speaking, they don't do anything else, or they do it poorly. These games are tools that allow you how to do something that you may have never done before.

For a nearly exhaustive distillation of Design What Matters, see The Power 19, which is all about identifying what you're designing for and then figuring out how to design for it.

Examples of Design What Matters: Primetime Adventures. Dogs in the Vineyard. Once Upon a Time. Monopoly. Scrabble. A forklift. A pulley.

Design What Doesn't Matter

"Okay, you want that? Let me get rid of all this other stuff for you, so you can focus on that."

Design What Doesn't Matter says, "Okay, you want this? Let me get rid of all that other stuff for you, so you can focus on what you want." It provides vague or even non-existent instructions on how to focus on anything; in fact these games shy away from focus as a general concept. Instead, this philosophy provides many and varied methods to not focus on things, to resolve them quickly and move on, to avoid depth and complexity. The goal is not to provide the most superficial experience possible; it's to marginalize those skipped-over elements so that you can focus on the "real meat" of roleplaying, whatever your group happens to think that is. That's also an important part of this philosophy -- it assumes you have a functional or semi-functional group who is able to decide what they want and do the focusing work themselves. Which is, really, something that any group of adults should be able to do if they know each other marginally well. Because of this philosophy, these games can "do anything" because the game doesn't actually do it; the players do. The game just removes all the other pesky details that are getting in between you and your fun. It's a tool that helps you do what you would already be doing, and do it better. It is, at root, a labor-saving device.

Examples of Design What Doesn't Matter: GURPS. Shadowrun. World of Darkness. Blue Rose. Mind's Eye Theater. Costumes. MacOS X. Microwave ovens.

In the end, they're all just tools, albeit with different uses, at your disposal. You use the first set of tools to build what you want, you use the second set of tools to clear away the stuff you don't and build what you want on your own. Still sound like no big difference? Let's rephrase it in terms of the range of use of those tools.

Design What Matters games let you play anything the tools allow you to build.

Design What Doesn't Matter games make it easier to play anything that you could have come up with on your own.

Ah ha, now we're starting to uncover the difference. The two philosophies, in addition to functioning differently, also provide a different range of possibilities. I'm not going to go into which philosophy has a broader range here; in fact I think that's probably an effort in futility, and generalized observations will be trumped by specific reality every time. The important thing to realize is that there are some things that the tools can build that are beyond your ability to do on your own, and there are some things that you can do on your own that the specialized tools can't do. Because I like rephrasing, let's do it again!

Design What Matters pushes you beyond your normal limits.

Design What Doesn't Matter makes you comfortable within your limits.

It probably sounds like I'm saying that the first is better than the second, doesn't it? Being comfortable is for pansies, we should always strive to push beyond our limits all the time, 24/7, rah rah rah, right? I don't know about you, but when I'm coming home from my two-hour commute through the heart of Los Angeles, my limits would really appreciate not being pushed right about then, and it'd be real nice to get comfortable in some pajamas, a blanket (it's cold recently), and maybe a cat or two. So too, sometimes it's just nice to settle into a well-loved character, setting, or game and just get comfy in that milleu. Just look at games like Munchkin and Hackmaster for examples of how that comfortable-in-the-game phenomenon can be sold nearly undiluted (albiet with a postmodern self-referential spin, as always).

Or perhaps we can ditch the whole pansy-sounding 'comfortable' thing and say that Design What Doesn't Matter enhances what you've already got. Or that it liberates you to focus how you like -- it's like gaming feng shui (the philosophy, not the ninja game). Design What Doesn't Matter is sort of an optimization of make-believe, and that's pretty cool.

On the Design What Matters side, we can start to see this as more of a challenge, a dialogue, or a prod -- the goal is to move your frame of reference beyond the prior limits of your experience and ability. While it can be "softened," this sort of thing is by its very nature not comfortable. Or it is "comfortable" in the same way that an endorphin burn or adrenaline rush is comfortable -- the correct word here is "euphoric." I doubt many people are comfortable playing Dogs in the Vineyard, but I'm sure most folks certainly experience euphoria somewhere in the process. We've come back to the designer drugs analogy -- Design What Matters games try to provoke a specific altered state of consciousness, one that may be beyond your normal experience.

Again -- and I hate to have to jump up and down and keep repeating this, but I feel it's necessary -- I'm not saying that one is fundamentally better than the other by any means. What I am saying, however, is that these two philosophies lead to two design approaches which result in two different kinds of play. The results are different. Sure, the content is the same -- you can shoot people in the face in Shadowrun or in Dogs -- but the difference is in the experience. Shooting people means something different, feels different, works different; it has a different weight and tone and quality. All of that comes from how the design impacts play -- which is why design philosophy is so important.

I, personally, am going to keep writing Design What Matters games. I doubt that's a surprise. The reason why, however? Cause the Design What Doesn't Matter market's already swamped, and I'm not interested in wading into that kind of competition. Thanks to GURPS and OGL, there very literally is not one genre or premise that I can think of that doesn't already have a supplement that can be used to run it, and there are more coming out every day. Especially in the case of GURPS, the stuff that's already out there is superior to what I could produce. So when I want that kind of experience -- the feng-shuied tricked-out optimized and streamlined facilitation of my own imagination -- I'll go there. The stuff that needs writing -- the stuff that pushes me into new experiences and revelations about myself -- that's where I'll be in the mean time.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Do you think these are

Do you think these are essentially incompatible approaches? Because, as you say, they result in tools. And I can see both sorts of tools being useful in the one game. However, these are both really processes of creating tools, rather than a classification of the tools themselves, so I can't see how it would work. Unless they could be used sequentially or something?

... ... How did you



How did you become so wise? :)

So, yeah, this is something I've been trying to articulate for months now. Thanks. I've got a handle on some ideas that have really been bothering me recently.


Very interesting. Still

Very interesting. Still percolating through my head; I haven't played a Design what doesn't matter game in many years so my current sense of it comes through the prism of the forge forums. I've taken from this that you should design for the thigns you are interested in , that anything else is wasted design, etc etc. But hm, things look a little different under your prism.

My initial thoughts. Does this 'separate but equal' status apply to the entire set of potential players, or only to existing gamers? Does the success of DWDM games demand a prior history of success? You talk about playing a comfortable game of DWDM when you'd rather not deal with the things DWM throws at you. Is this because gamers find the modelling of DWDM comes naturally to them, or would even a total newbie find it easier to get their head round this, rather than, say Trollbabe? Do any DWDM game systems spring to mind that you would use to initiate someone into gaming with?

Many questions, but I think they mostly are the same one!

Thanks for elucidating

Thanks for elucidating something that had been lurking in the back of my head for years, ever since I started reading the Forge.

"Violence, Sex, Family, Money, God, Art" is likely to turn out to be a "DWDM" game.

Would you say that the "Power 19" questions break down when applied to a DWDM game?

I was wondering; near the

I was wondering; near the beginning you say "you have a functional or semi-functional group who is able to decide what they want and do the focusing work themselves." You also say that this isn't an unreasonable assumption for most regular gaming groups ("Which is, really, something that any group of adults should be able to do if they know each other marginally well."), which I pretty much agree with.

But, I'm assuming that DWM games don't need this; the rules provide "explicit and relatively exacting instructions" to create a functional experience (given, of course that there is *some* basic level of social contract - "Don't crap on the carpet." level stuff). That experince will be (highly-)focused in the direction of the game, obviously, but in doing so it also provides rules that enable "functional play". Am I right?

I'm not sure if I want to go this far, but I will for sake of argument: Does that mean that DWM games are better for situations where you can't assume that you have a functional or semi-functional group right off the bat: Games for kids, convention games, games for "non-roleplayers", etc. I think that DWDM games would struggle in those kinds of situations.

Pretty much, yep. The one

Pretty much, yep.

The one thing I would say is problematic about a lot of "design what doesn't matter" games is that they're not honest with themselves about what they're doing. A little more transparencey about the process ("we give you this so you can do that other thing") would probably help everyone.

Of course, there is also the place where one game shades into the other because we want to have it all, and that can lead to all kinds of incoherence. That, however, is probably more a matter of keeping clear goals in design than a fundmental incompatibility.

Very interesting stuff.

Very interesting stuff.

So nice to have comments that

So nice to have comments that aren't spam. Hey, guys!

Claire -- in one draft of this article I had a paragraph that started, "Of course, it doesn't have to be one way or the other..." but in the course of writing the paragraph, I pretty much came to the conclusion that it did. The reason being that if you use a set of DWM tools at the same time as you use DWDM tools, what you've got is this super-set of tools that removes all relevance of player input. The game "plays itself" and the players are pretty much just filling in color -- this is the sort of thing that's being called Parlor Narration games recently. There may be a very thin strip of land between the two where the two philosophies can coexist -- maybe -- but I don't think they actually work together very well, and they certainly don't support each other.

Thomas -- I'm parroting a lot of what other folks have been saying for a long time, so don't ascribe too much insight to me. I just piled it up into an article. ;)

Alex -- Good question! I suspect that most non-gamers will probably take to Design What Matters games easier, but this is for a rhetorically useless reason: they're used to playing board games, which are all Design What Matters things. On the other hand, I think if you took your run-of-the-mill overimaginative pre-teen, they'd take to the Design What Doesn't Matter games with just the slightest push -- a good Example of Play or playing one session with their cousin while they're visiting them on vacation (I know tons of gamers who started like that). But you're right, a whole ton of our habits surrounding play are matters of apostolic tradition, handed down from player to player through the years, and you can still see the influence of our wargaming roots in a lot of those traditions. Lots of Design What Doesn't Matter games are written to address those traditions.

Vax -- The Power 19 is like the instruction manual of Design What Matters. In fact I should probably link it in the article, it's such a thorough distillation of that entire design philosophy.

Warren -- I think it's pretty significant that a lot of the indie games came out of the Cons of the east coast and midwest, and I think you're absolutely right. Design What Matters games work perfectly fine for five or six total strangers sitting down and playing. Design What Doesn't Matter games rely on the assumption that there's some "default basic roleplaying foundation" that all gamers share which is so, so, so totally wrong-headed that these games are prone to... well, all of those "terrible Convention game" stories that we've all read and heard of. In my mental shorthand that no doubt loses some of the finer points of the argument, I keep thinking of Design What Doesn't Matter games as something specifically designed for you and your friends to do over drinks/coffee/whatever. Transplanting that experience to some drafty hotel ballroom -- yeah, asking for issues.

Brand -- Neither side is honest with itself. Sure, Design What Doesn't Matter doesn't say "Here's rules for stupid stuff so you don't have to think about it," but Design What Matters doesn't go around saying, "Dude, this game is like a pen-and-paper version of LSD and will rewire your mind." And I actually do find them to be a fundamental incompatability -- see my response to Claire up at the top, there. It's sort of like Creative Agenda Clash -- actually, it's probably Social Agenda Clash, come to think of it.

Andy -- Thanks, man. Most of this is coming from me watching all the designers in Game Chef, and seeing the giant divide between the two kinds of games that are being produced. Thanks for hosting the event -- it's like a giant petri dish we all get to play in. :)

Oh, hey -- that thin strip of

Oh, hey -- that thin strip of land between the two philosophies? Here's a contender for conquering that territory: Burning Wheel. I haven't ever played it, so I can't speak on it with authority, but it seems to me that Artha and BITs are a relatively loose Design What Matters end-product, while all of the specialized (and, notably, optional) subsystems are lots of Design What Doesn't Matter rules. Anybody with AP experience want to chime in here?

I'm not sure. I have played

I'm not sure. I have played a decent amount of Burning Wheel and it feels like a DWDM game to me. The BITs and Artha systems are simply tools for picking what matters to the group. They don't make statements on their own, they work to help you recognize and articulate the stuff that does matter. That is: BITs and Artha don't matter, they point you at what does. To me that's a good indicator of a DWDM set of rules.

One interesting thing to note though is that players can probably use it either way (and this may be true of all DWM games). You can choose to treat the mechanics as being what matters or as what doesn't matter. You can't do both at the same time, but different groups can make that decision for themselves.

Hmm... I wonder what that means exactly...


I'm going to be troublesome

I'm going to be troublesome again and say I don't really agree with this distinction.

As Vincent comments in his post, "The Fruitful Void", the newer indie games still are about designing things that surround but don't define what matters. I think that's true of older games as well. Some games have broad focus (i.e. Primetime Adventures and GURPS), whereas other games have more narrow focus (i.e. The Mountain Witch and Toon), but it's always true that you design around what is important.

John, when you're talking

John, when you're talking about focus you're talking content; I'm talking about the ways in which you manipulate that content.

Primetime Adventures has you define your Issue, and tells you how much Screen Time you have in order to address that issue, and specifically frames each scene as "this happens, but how?" That's all the stuff that matters to how PTA is played. The specific content focus might be the same as GURPS, sure, but the experience of that content, and how you manipulate it, is very different between the two, and PTA constantly goads you to construct the narrative in ways that you may not think of at first. Whereas GURPS will keep track of your hit points, tell you what martial arts moves you can use, and how far your Power Blast can shoot -- stuff that's not important to the experience but is nice to know so you don't have to worry about it. The PTA game and the GURPS game can both be about superheroes battling villains, but PTA's support leads you to addressing the superheroes' issues, while GURPS' support takes care of the non-thematic details like range, ability, fatigue points, et cetera. The stuff is the same, but how you play with it is different.

When I say Design What Matters, I'm not saying "If it's about Humanity, have a Humanity stat." The mechanics might never directly address the What Matters -- you don't have a Morality score in Dogs, for instance -- but the mechanics function to push you towards what matters -- into that whirlwind that Vincent drew. Fruitful Void is totally Design What Matters. Design What Doesn't Matter is clearing everything else off the table, no pushing/goading/guiding involved, so you can play what you like.

Hey Joshua, Where does

Hey Joshua,

Where does stuff like the Pool, HeroQuest, or Universalis fall on this list for you?

Burning Wheel is a DWDoesM

Burning Wheel is a DWDoesM game -- it just has a very wide range of "does matter" where most DWDoesM games are pretty narrow. (Mountain Witch and My Life With Master are damn narrow, but PTA is much, much, less so.)

Heroquest is a DWDoesM game, but in a similar vein is mostly because in Heroquest anything can matter, the rules apply to all contests the same. You decide what matters when you make your character sheet, and the rules just give you a big generic pacing a structure machine to run it through.

Having played A Game of Thrones in the official d20 version, and with the HeroQuest homebrew I did, I can tell you there is a huge difference in where play comes from, how it gets directed, and how it interacts with the system.

Chris, you named three games

Chris, you named three games that I have not played or even read. ;)

If there is a reinforcement system that keys into flags, though, it's probably a Design What Matters game -- the structure pushes play to a specific emphasis.

I'm not sure about Universalis, though. While it does goad players to keep circling around and playing with elements that they've identified as important, I don't know that it really pushes them to do anything more than fiddle with them.

The Pool is, I believe, a colorless-and-flavorless resolution system that balances GM and player power. Assuming that's correct, it's Design What Doesn't Matter -- the power relationships around the table are one of those annoying things you'd like to not have to deal with, and it provides you with a handy tool to not deal with it.

I guess I'm having a really

I guess I'm having a really hard time understanding DWDM here. Is what you're saying that DWDM games provide rules so that you don't have to focus on it? I guess I'm just not seeing the value in it in that it means what really matters is not supported by the rules, and in order to really focus on what you want, the best answer is to utilize the rules as little as possible. I mean, I'm saying that GURPS rules would activately get in the way of certain types of play, simply by eating up actual play time in handling them to deal with things that don't matter.

The reason I asked about those three games is that they can support whatever the group finds important (excepting gamism), but are utterly built on a focused concept of designing what matters- a simple resolution system that aids the group in dealing with Lumpley Principle so that they can concentrate on whatever content/style of play is their focus.

Am I totally misunderstanding what you're saying here?

Basically, I agree with your

Basically, I agree with your point, and disagree with your classifications. Particularly, PTA is absolutely design-what-doesn't-matter.

What matters are the issues. Note that there are *no rules whatsoever* for how they are addressed or resolved.

You're making the mistake of assuming that the conflicts are what matters. They aren't, ever I think.

Ben, If you consider the


If you consider the fruitful void idea, and how it is that a game relates to the void, I think PTA becomes a "what matters" game because it's structure is designed to push you towards that center. Other games either assume you're already at the void, or don't give a crap about it, and they tend to move towards "what doesn't matter."

Although PTA is certainly an interesting case, now that you mention it. Didn't it cause some controversy back in the whole "void" discussion?

I'm going to suggest that

I'm going to suggest that Burning Wheel is a Design What Matter, with focus on consequence of choice. Put your theme in, pick your tools and go. You want political discussions and contact mongering, here Duel of Wits and Circles will give you kick-ass conflicts. You want Sword and Sorcery, here is Fight and Magic.

Instead of being a Design What Matters with a narrow focus, its a Design What Matters with a wider focus. Focus here being tools and way to play.

If I get the DWDM, the tools are more like here this is how to handle anything, now go.
BWr breaks this by saying here, what you want to play? Ok here is the design you need for that.

I am having trouble articulating what I mean here.


Please, dude, tell me what

Please, dude, tell me what rule in PTA pushes you towards the Issues, I mean other than writing them down.

I picked PTA for a reason. :-) The only other option was Polaris, and I talk about my game too much.


Have I mentioned that I still

Have I mentioned that I still haven't read or played PTA? I thought scenes were always either development-of-character or conflict-from-issue scenes?

Chris I can actually answer, though. I think my answer on the Pool is pretty solid. HeroQuest and Universalis I'm going to suggest are Design What Doesn't Matter for exactly the reasons that you cite. They have you flag your interests, they focus play towards those interests, but they do not focus play towards doing anything with those interests that you would not have done yourself (unless I'm missing something).

Whereas Dogs has you (lightly) flag interests and then pushes the hell out of you until you're shooting people to back up your beliefs. Dogs takes your flags and then pushes/pulls/goads/prods you in a specific direction that is probably a little beyond where you'd normally go yourself. Capes pushes you to split your attention and resources between different conflicts that you care about. Sorcerer asks you how much you'll give to get what you want. See what I'm getting at? There's a direction created by the function of the rules, independent of player initiative.

Clear as mud, Chris?

Actually Josh, at the point

Actually Josh, at the point of your last post I think you and I have actually gone off onto different definitions.

Between you and Ben I must now go off and think about this more.

Hi Josh, Ah, I see what

Hi Josh,

Ah, I see what you're saying- I guess it's the titles of DWM and DWDM that's throwing me on it. It's a question of whether the mechanics are pushing you in a direction, or if you have to push the mechanics in a direction. I guess I see the real distinction as to whether you're building a direction into things- not really whether they "matter" or not.

Exactly, Chris. Whether or

Exactly, Chris. Whether or not the designer sits down and decides, "I'm totally going to push them in direction X," their fundamental choice on whether to provide the scaffolding to do a specific thing or to hand players a machete to clear away everything else will determine whether or not the rules push/guide/pull/goad the players or the players push/guide/pull/goad each other.

Very nice article, Josh. Like

Very nice article, Josh. Like some of the others I disagree on a few points. Basically, going back to what I was discussing at Story Games regarding Conflict Resolution and how it operates in the realm of ideas, I think that any game whose mechanics operate directly on the domain of ideas or themes, whether designed into the game or defined by the players, is a Design What Matters game. Thus HQ & PTA sound like DWM (though I don't have PTA and haven't finished reading HQ), with the caveat that HQ can probably be played in a DWDM manner if the GM and players don't run the game in a character-centric fashion (i.e., constructing scenarios around the characters' Flags).

I also think that I have a bit of a problem with the line that "we want those rules so that we don't have to worry about resolving those things". I know it's often cited by DWDM advocates, but I don't buy it when it comes to the detailed and often fun mechanics found in DWDM games, particularly for combat. For that matter I think a lot of DWDM designs could benefit from having more fun subgame-type mechanics for lots of other stuff. The key difference is that DWDM designs provide no means of enforcing theme: you may have a ton of cool, fun mechanics which interlock perfectly, but the key to DWDM is that there are no rules or guidelines for making larger structures out of them.

Maybe I'd like to think of non-DWM games, as, well, non-DWM rather than DWDM. And this may be why there's fuzziness around HQ and (I suspect) BW: they give you mechanical tools for directly addressing themes, but they don't say you have to use them. DitV on the other hand forces you to use them if you follow the rules on town creation and GMing (including the bit on GMing between towns). Ignore those rules, and in spite of the neato character and conflict resolution mechanics, you no longer have a DWM game because you no longer have rules that directly say what the game is about.

Hmm. I could go either way

Hmm. I could go either way with PTA. I mean, it does explicitly say "have conflicts be about issues." Depends I guess on whether you think that counts as a rule. I think it does.

Eliott, forgive my slight

Eliott, forgive my slight cirumlocution, here. Designs which provide a lot of fun subsystems that interlock together but do not create larger structures is a very good description of Design What Doesn't Matter, and the key in there is do not create larger structure. The rules, as written, do not guide the players to creating a larger structure to frame or contextualize the experience. But. Do you know any players who play these RPGs and only fiddle with those subsystems without creating some sort of larger structure? In my experience (which certainly is not exhaustive), play inevitably creates a larger pattern to make the pieces "make sense." We have pattern-matching monkey brains, and I don't think we can really turn that function off.

So if a group of players picks up Heroes Unlimited, creates superheroes and plays three adventures where they battle villains, they're almost assured to think of those three adventures as happening chronologically (or in some logical order) and having some relationship to each other, not merely as discrete tactical simulations in which you shoot laser beams from your eyes. Whether or not they care about hippie shit like a developing story is up to them, but I doubt even the most hardcore "tabletop warrior" munchkin wouldn't retell the events in the context of a story or a linear progression of challenge or a widening exploration of world or a testing of the system or or or... we're human beings; we imbue the things we do with meaning, whether we're guided to or not.

Thanks for the clarification,

Thanks for the clarification, Matt. The interesting thing there is that the system goads individual players to move towards and address the other players' flags, so depending on what your fellow players put down as their issues, the resulting game can push you in directions that you wouldn't have gone, but covering ground that the other player would have, and vice-versa. Iiiinteresting.

Josh, let me begin by saying

Josh, let me begin by saying it's your definition and I shouldn't have said "I disagree", just "How do you handle this problematic thingie?" Nevertheless, it sounds like you're accepting my main point which is that your second category includes games with interesting mechanics that aren't necessarily about anything until the players decide consciously or not to make it so. Whereas other games either tell you what they're about and give tools to work on that or, like PTA or other games with explicit flags, they tell you to decide what they're about (and then give you tools to work with that).

Where I'm still fuzzy is in your interpretation of Design What Doesn't Matter as being motivated by (and delivering on) the idea that the mechanics are there to handle stuff we don't care about so that we can get on with the stuff that we do care about. Because if that's true, then why do a lot of games opt for involved mechanics that draw attention to themselves? My answer is that in those cases, the mechanics aren't "clearing the underbrush"--what they're doing is saying "here's this interesting thing, what do you think you can do with it?"

Eliott, I see "here's this

Eliott, I see "here's this interesting thing, what do you think you can do with it?" as describing a range of statements:
o "the combat system works like this-and-such; what do you think you can do with it?"
o "claymores do 3d6 damage; what do you think you can do with it?"
o "the natives of Umpaupaumow are xenophobic but possess strange powers; what do you think you can do with it?"

All of which are Design What Doesn't Matter because what matters is how it is used, or more precisely, what significance is assigned to the operation of the interesting things. Note that none of these state that combat, claymores, or xenophobic natives are significant to any degree, whereas Dogs dice (for instance) are direct expressions of significance. You can not engage the combat system, not use a claymore, and not visit Umpaupaumow and still be playing whatever game contains those, but you can't play Dogs and sidestep the significance that it embeds in the game experience.

Excellent article! It's got

Excellent article! It's got me thinking about some of the games I've played through the years.

GURPS: I think that GURPS is actually two games. The first game is "Character Creation", and it's all about getting the most out of your character points. It's like a math puzzle that you do for fun, or a big box of generic Legos with no instructions other than "build the best thing ever". (I believe that the Hero System works the same way.) This certainly qualifies as "Design What Matters", because the rules are there to push you towards this kind of tinkering.

Don't underestimate the power of the Character Creation Game! This aspect of the game is a huge draw for many gamers. Whether or not the Character Creation Game counts as being a "roleplaying game" or not is left as an exercise for the reader.

The second game that makes up GURPS is "Actually Playing". In my experiences with Actually Playing GURPS, you barely touch the rulebook at all. I'd say that Actually Playing GURPS qualifies as "Design What Doesn't Matter". All those rules for fighting, lifting things, holding your breath, etc. have been written for you, so that you don't have to worry about them.

Dungeons & Dragons, v. 3.5: Design What Matters. Obviously! What matters in D&D 3.5e is pitting your Rules-Fu against everyone else. Success through expert knowledge! The problem with D&D 3.5e is that in some places, it mixes DWM with DWDM. (Why does it require an Appraise check to appraise a common item? Why do some skill uses explicitly say that the roll must be made in secret, and others do not? Why do I need to calculate the surface area of a room to figure out how long it would take to search it?) One could ignore most of the rules in D&D, and pretend that it's a DWDM game; a lot of players do this, but it's not really the way the game is designed.

PrimeTime Adventures: Design What Matters, and here's why. What really matters in PTA is the way it encourages collaborative play. From the Pitch to Character Creation to Actual Play, every rule in PTA is written to push players to work together. It's hard - nearly impossible - to be a passive participant in a game of PTA.

- Pôl

Hey, Pol! (I dunno how to

Hey, Pol! (I dunno how to get a circumflex over my o)

While agree with you that, in practice, GURPS Character Creation is a game (and a fun one at that), I don't think it was originally designed as such. In fact, if you look at the sample characters provided throughout the history of the game line, they make pretty poor decisions based on point-mongering. It seems to me that the system was originally designed as a 'simple' system (that then ran off and got hugely complex) for building characters for actual play. GURPS Actual Play is, yes, heavily Design What Doesn't Matter.

I haven't spoken about D&D much if at all, since I have next to zero experience with it. However, from what I hear from people who do play, your characterization of it is spot-on.

The note about PTA promoting collaboration is an interesting one, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I've been considering "What Matters" purely in terms of the experience of play, not the means by which that experience is produced. That's an interesting spin, and I'll need to think on it.

Okay, I'm not disputing that

Okay, I'm not disputing that those are cases of DWDM. All I'm saying is, when someone says they use some complex, time-consuming, or seductive(*) rules for a DWDM game because "they allow me to quickly dispose of the stuff that doesn't matter", I call shenanigans. There's something more going on there.

(* By "seductive rules", I mean rules that make you want to use them because they're inherently fun and/or produce vivid local effects even when they have no fixed meaning in the larger context of "the game as a whole".)

Ah, you mean the pure joy of

Ah, you mean the pure joy of fiddling with things. I suspect Fun Fiddly Bits is orthogonal to this distinction. You can have Fun Fiddly Bits that dispense of insignificant details (like building Vehicles in GURPS) and you can have Fun Fiddly Bits that emphasize significant details (like Dogs' conflict resolution). So too can you have Boring Fiddly Bits that dispense of insignificant details (White Wolf combat. Bleh.) and you can have Boring Fiddly Bits that emphasize significant details (Sorcerer demon-versus-demon combats, dice in the Pool).

That said, I think the combinations are pretty interesting. Are mechanics designed with more fiddly bits to compensate for dealing with insignificant details? Are mechanics that would otherwise be pretty tepid vitalized by dealing with significant details? Across the spectrum, the boring fiddly bits are nice because then they can be transparent, whereas fun fiddly bits are fun just because they're fun, but is there territory in between where the fiddly bits aren't transparent but aren't quite entertaining, either? Is that territory simply bad design, or is it something else instead or as well?

Yeah, that's pretty much what

Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm getting at, but at least for the moment I'm not really concerned with the exact source of interest in the fiddly bits, because that's a whole other issue. Just for the sake of showing the breadth, though, the bits could be fun in themselves (mechanically) or they could be representationally fun. As an example of the latter, I'm thinking of hit location tables and critical hit charts which derive their interest mainly from the random generation of gory details. If all they did at the end was spit out an abstract number, they'd be boring.

Either way, the deal is that we've got this thing that's kind of interesting in itself and might just possibly be a playable as a simple gamelike thingy. A simple test would be: how long and how many times would you bet willing to repeat this thingy solitaire, and how much more interest could you get out of varying the inputs?

You then embed it in your larger RPG but you don't create a an overall structure of explicit meaning. Voilà--a Design What Doesn't Matter game that has at least some mechanics that aren't there merely to "dispense with stuff that doesn't matter". My feeling is that these games fit well into the bricolage mold that Chris Lehrich developed. The interesting bits grab you, and then you fiddle (bricole, tinker) to develop interesting context around them, and that in turn encourages the development of additional contextual layers--like a sort of crystallization or accretion. But this is a different process from DWM because (a) what matters may ultimately have little to do with the textual design and (b) there are many different directions that the accretion process can take.

At the same time it's rather different from the alleged "dispensing with unimportant stuff"/"clearing out the underbrush" idea of Design What Doesn't Matter, because if you take that at face value, you're really saying that your mechanics are just a way of dispensing with the "bang-you're-dead-no-I'm-not" issue. In which case, no need for interesting mechanics; in fact, unified streamlined mechanics are probably best so that you can get on with your freeform address of whatever it is that really matters.

Anyway, I think I'm starting to repeat myself, so I'd best stop here and not hog your blog.

Ah, I getcha, Eliott. How

Ah, I getcha, Eliott. How about "handling" rather than "dispensing"? The rules do something for you so you don't have to. Whether you think of it in terms of what the rules do (handling) or what you don't do (dispensing), it's the same deal. Yeah?

(And don't worry about hogging the blog. I have it here and comments turned on for good folks like yourself.)

I agree with Matt regarding

I agree with Matt regarding PTA.

During your spotlight episode, every scene should somehow addresss one's issue and then the player decides if they are going to change it.

Conflict resolution is only there to say something about your issue.

Doncha think?

Hm. Interesting. I'm not

Hm. Interesting. I'm not quite sure what I think about it.

It makes sense to me as a diagnostic when thinking about playing Narrativist: "This game explicitly helps build up structure, i.e. Story Now. This other game doesn't, instead it lets me handle that." But how would it work when thinking about Sim or Gam? What "larger structure" is there in Gamism which could be similarly left up to the players? Or do "BWDoesn'tM" games not support any particular creative agenda?

DWDoesn'tM can definitely label certain existing games...but I don't see how it's on "equal footing" with the alternative. Doesn't it basically come down to "Design your own system for what matters"? And isn't that still a rip-off?

Enh. I try and stay away

Enh. I try and stay away from the -isms. The larger structure outside of an emphasis on a thematic statement through narrative structure could be a progression of challenge, a proposition of how the world works, an exploration of a genre or world, an expression of character, even something as simple as a progression of linked events.

I don't understand your second question, Jasper. Are you asking if Design What Doesn't Matter still produces inferior games because they make you do work that the designer should have done? If so, the response is: that's the point. John Kim* does not want to be told what game he plays; he wants to have some fun fiddly bits with which to build the kind of game he's got in his head. And that's entertaining for him. Maybe next week he'll play something with tighter constraints, but tonight he wants to play with his imaginary erector set and see what he can make out of it. That make any more sense?

* By "John Kim" I merely mean "perfectly rational guy who knows what he wants out of his game" -- any resemblance to real gamers is purely coincidental.

Elliott, "...I think that


"...I think that any game whose mechanics operate directly on the domain of ideas or themes, whether designed into the game or defined by the players, is a Design What Matters game."

I feel like you're saying here, "ideas/themes = what matters," and I am not sure that is true. Do you consider it possible to have a DWM game that's specifically a fighty game, that provides you with interesting systemic choices with long-range structural implications, but does not fritter about in the misty land of themes?

I am not sure myself, but I am finding myself recoiling from this seemingly taken-for-granted enthronement of thematic play, to the detriment of design for other agendas.

Yeah, that makes sense. (And

Yeah, that makes sense. (And I didn't mean to cloud the discussion with value judgments.) I just want to be clear that System is still present in equal amounts in either play experience...DWDoesn'tMatter games are there to support you making your own "System for what Matters" (informally and on the fly) while DWMatters games do that part for you (formally and before you start playing). Is that a fair characterization?

No -isms are fine by me. I'm just trying to get a good grasp on what the "matters" part is really referring to, in actual play. I think I see now though.

For both Shreyas and Jasper

For both Shreyas and Jasper -- "What Matters" can totally be the tournament-like progression of difficulty through the arena of dungeon after dungeon, sure. It does not need to be some lofty wannabe novel full of thematic weight and thunderous implications. It can be, but it can just as easily be laughing with friends over how the characters continually fall on their faces.

Joshua BishopRoby

Joshua BishopRoby wrote:
John Kim* does not want to be told what game he plays; he wants to have some fun fiddly bits with which to build the kind of game he’s got in his head. And that’s entertaining for him. Maybe next week he’ll play something with tighter constraints, but tonight he wants to play with his imaginary erector set and see what he can make out of it. That make any more sense?
Well, that's just asking me to comment, isn't it. :-) This still seems to me like narrow versus broad focus. I always want the rules to support what I want to get out of the game. That means both emphasizing what I think is important, and de-emphasizing what I think is not important.

If I'm using an erector set like the Hero System, that means that there a certain amount of option-setting and a long character construction phase. But I'm still choosing the system to do what I want and focus the game. I've been a Hero System fan for a long time. It's good for it's emphasis on personal action along with powers, weaknesses, and mostly static relationships. If I'm going to have powers in a game, I usually want to make them important, because they're symbolically potent. Still, I didn't choose it for every game. For example, when I wanted to do my more serious Star Trek campaign back in '94, I went with a homebrew based on CORPS. (Homebrewing didn't mean that I thought system doesn't matter or that system shouldn't emphasize what's important. It simply meant that I didn't know of a published system which focused on what I wanted for this campaign.)

I don't see a difference in principle between, say, the rules-lite system of Dogs in the Vineyard versus the more elaborate Hero System. Dogs emphasizes escalation and abstract inter-character conflict, but I don't see how that's different than the Hero System emphasizing detailed powers.

But John, don't the town

But John, don't the town creation rules (progression of Sin) and the GMing guidelines (especially escalate^3 on p. 141 and the between towns section on pp. 122-124) create an overall framework that forces play along certain channels? (Note: I consider these guidelines to be part of the rules/system because that's the stance of the "design school" that the game comes from. I've explained elsewhere why I don't necessarily consider GMing guidelines to be part of the system in other games like Hero or GURPS.)

Shreyas: I'm talking in terms of theme here basically because Josh is a thematic kind of guy. From my perspective, you definitely could have a DWM game that's about "winning". The classic case being a board game, and the closest in terms of an RPG that I've seen being Magic Realm. For all its fiddliness, and in spite of being viewed as unplayable by many, the game has explicit victory conditions and it also has perfect delineation of authority: at any given point, the criteria for deciding what to do next individually or collectively is completely clear. Either the rules tell you what to do, or the rules empower a specific player to make the decision; and when you have that power, you are expected to use it purely in your own self interest with respect to trying to win the game. Among actual RPGs, I think the closest to this sort of thing are the "solo" adventures from The Fantasy Trip (which could be played with a GM, and if the GM wasn't trying his hardest to kill everybody, he was playing wrong IMO). Also possibly the solo adventures from T&T, and maybe (from the little I've read) Rune. The CRs in D&D 3.x may push it in this direction, but there still seems to be some variation in actual use, and I'm not personally familiar with that edition of the game.

So with advance apologies for possibly mangling Josh's language, I see DWM meaning that the game contains more or less explicit metagame rules that orient play, and (generally) give you tools move play along that orientation. And I see DWDM meaning that the game doesn't contain those sorts of "orienting" mechanics, so that the players either have to supply the orientation and reinforce it through play, or they have to "stumble around" and "self-orientate". I think I enjoy the latter, really--what I once referred to as "existential wandering" in a private note to Josh. Now it could be that a game is designed for exactly that--I mean, for me, that's a prime attraction of RPGs as opposed to board games--but the way you design for it can't be to build it into the rules. So for someone who's theme-oriented, it looks like DWDM.

Dude, Eliott, you've got to

Dude, Eliott, you've got to design a game that's focused on existential wandering, now. Not because the world needs it, just to see if it can be done. ;)

Also, I think you and I are speaking the same language, now. "Orienting mechanics" is a neat phrase.

John -- I don't see the existence of rules covering a type of content as the same thing as rules emphasizing that type of content. It's the difference between HERO/GURPS Supers/Aberrent and Capes/With Great Power. You can play a game of GURPS Supers without ever utilizing the superpowers rules and it would still be GURPS Supers. However, it's difficult to avoid using superpowers in Capes - the rules push you to use them to one-up your fellow players and reinforce their use by giving you story tokens. Additionally, use of superpowers in Capes is automatically significant, while use of superpowers in GURPS Supers is exactly as significant as crossing the street or serving coffee with sugar. Am I making sense?

I am sort of thinking of a

I am sort of thinking of a game of existential wandering, Josh. But I'm not sure how close I want to get there, or whether someone else might have beaten me to it.. See, I sort of lied about Magic Realm--it does have victory conditions and all that, but it also has a massive amount of stuff that almost never makes it into the game and it's debatable whether it ever can make it into the game if everyone's trying to win. I'm sure I've played the game in a mode of, "I'm not going to try to win--I'm going to try to win as the Witch King while trying to get the Bashkars and allies and pick up the War chit so that my goal becomes to wipe out half the tribes on the board." In reality you pretty much can't do that unless you tweak the rules or get impossibly lucky. Still the idea is there: you can still have win/loss conditions in a game while what you're really doing is facilitating the players' interest in building neat stuff. Where MR falls down is that the balance is off and there's not enough "time" (in the game, or in real life, given the fiddliness) to take those long detours on the way to victory.

So the game I've been thinking of is one that works a little like MR, but is much streamlined to allow for more sweep and more twists. Then the question is whether it could function without overall victory conditions or not. I'm thinking that in order to do so, it needs some "seductive" core mechanics...which then takes us back to fiddliness. Hm. Either way, this has helped me clarify the concepts that might someday go into making the game.

Like when I play Alpha

Like when I play Alpha Centauri and I try to sink the entire planet under the melting ice caps, or play SimCity and see if I can make the most heartless dystopia possible and still have a positive population growth?

Yeah, probably. Maybe also

Yeah, probably. Maybe also like those people who made a music video out of Soul Calibur ("Dance, Voldo, Dance"). I wouldn't expect quite that much wild creativity from users, though.

Also, I should possibly add that from my perspective, a lot RPG's are already about existential wandering. The original Traveller (which I got a taste of but unfortunately didn't play much of) might be near the top of the list with its early implementation of lifepaths, minimal "advancement", and rules for generating star systems. I probably stumbled into something like that due to extensive use of the random tables for encounters, terrain, NPC reactions, etc., when I DMed AD&D 1e.

Excellent article! It

Excellent article!

It spells out something I myself have tough a lot about, and written a short piece on here:

One thing that your text maybe misses is that the DWDM games often have backgound texts focusing on what matters. Some are more specific than others but it is not uncommon for a game with very broad rules to have a very specific setting.

Hey, Jonas. You're right; a

Hey, Jonas. You're right; a lot of Design What Doesn't Matter games provide a focus through their setting material. I'm skeptical, however, of how effective those pseudo-rules are. It's one thing to dictate a focus, which this sort of material does, and quite another to support a focus, which the sum effect of an entire design can do.

To take a cheap shot, consider Vampire games -- how many of those games were pretty idiosyncratic per play group, leading to massive problems whenever somebody tried to cross over into a new group? Hell, consider the Camarrilla in general. The setting material certainly led some/most folks to play dark and manipulative politics, but did those politics get expressed in similar ways, or did they just have a similar launching-off point, and then ran off in wildly different directions?

Post new comment