Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Game Space and Game Reality

Copyright (c) 1991 Stephen R. Balzac
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL

There is one thing that almost every game has in common, whether it is a spy-thriller, a space-opera, murder mystery, or even a fantasy of one sort of another. This common element is not the game mechanics (although it could be), nor is it particular plot elements or characters. Rather, most games take place in the "real" world, the world which exists around us all the time. Games are then distinguished from commonplace reality by the addition of some form of fantasy element which largely defines the game and, to a greater or lesser extent, sets the genre of the game. Now, before anyone objects that many games, such as Dragon, or Foundation and Destiny, or Coronation, explicitly don't take place in the real world, keep in mind that in each of these games people are still people and characters' desires, motivations, and goals are basically the same as those possessed by real people in the real world. In other words, people are no different in a medieval fantasy than in a space-opera, only their surroundings and scenery have changed. My intention here is to discuss somewhat of how the distinguishing fantasy element of a game defines the "Game Space," the domain of all possible characters, plots and mechanics for the game; how this relates to the "Vortex," the interaction of all the characters, plots, and mechanics actually in the game; some of the effects of introducing elements into a game that are outside the Game Space; and why plots should be combined into a Vortex and not left to float unconnected in a void.

I regard the fantasy element of a game as the "Fantasy Overlay," which I define as that addition to the real world which produces the fantasy world of the game. In Rekon-1, the fantasy element is the presence of aliens at a science-fiction convention; in Arkham Weekend, it is the fact that Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones really exist and can be summoned; in Operation: Atlantis, it is the presence of the Secret World Organization for Retribution and Destruction (SWORD), a powerful secret organization out to control the world. The fantasy overlay is essentially a statement of "game reality," whether that is a reality in which intelligent aliens are secretly watching the Earth (Rekon-1), dark gods give their worshippers awesome powers (Arkham), or secret espionage organizations vie for behind the scenes control of the world (Atlantis). This does not mean that fantasy overlays cannot be combined, however, frequently it is that practice which generates the genre blurred games that so many people have played in.

I feel that once the fantasy overlay for a game has been decided, the world has been defined in a broad fashion. The details of how the game works and what the plots are to be need to be filled in, but I have made a statement about the kinds of plots that will be in the game. Just as a James Bond flick has SPECTRE in it, an espionage game needs to have some similar element to provide the needed level of paranoia and suspence. Thus, we have SWORD in Atlantis. But just as you don't expect to find vampires, werewolves, and gold dragons aboard the starship Enterprise, players also don't expect to find effective Cthulhu worshippers in the middle of their space opera.

In other words, having decided on my fantasy element, to wit, I am going to write an occult Lovecraftian game, it is now time to consider what sorts of plots belong in that game. Do I want extra-terrestrial characters in the game? After all, much of Lovecraft's monsters come "from the stars." Well, the question now becomes, "what is the focus of my game?" In other words, do I want the game to be about aliens making contact with Earth, or about Cthulhu and his minions? If the latter, which was my original intent, where does that leave my aliens? Assuming that my Cthulhu worshippers possess, in my game reality, sufficient power to have a meaningful effect on the game, and that, in fact, they are intended to be the centerpoint of the game, what happens to my aliens? Sure, they can be a vehicle for providing any arbitrary sort of technology to help fight the Cthulhu worshippers, but do I really want that? Lovecraft's creatures are rarely, if ever, banished by use of high technology. Rather, they're banished by people attempting the use the very mind-blasting powers that summoned the creatures in the first place. If I've gone to the trouble of putting in an occult plot, why not use it? On the flip side, if I say my aliens are actually in league with the Cthulhu worshippers, that creates a different problem: the black magic element of the game has been called into question. Are the players working black magic or simply playing with alien technology so advanced that it seems like magic? Which do I, as the GM, want it to be? Why can't I have both?

The answer, to digress briefly, is that to some extent I can. However, unless I want my game to split into two separate games, to wit, the alien contact game and the Lovecraft game, one fantasy element needs to be the major focus, and they both need to be connected somehow. In other words, I can certainly envision a game in which players are performing what they believe to be black magic only to discover that it is really alien technology (or vice-versa), or even a game where both exist side-by-side (in which case the probable plots would be the conflict between them -- otherwise, who cares?), however the GMs must consciously make that decision. That is now the fantasy element of the game. Otherwise, the GMs may find themselves writing characters that don't fit in the world they've created. The GMs have changed their definition of reality, but have not adjusted the rest of the game to match. This, in turn, is what leads to magic games where a player walks into the control room and says, "Hi, my character, and this ability card, says I'm a brilliant scientist, capable of building almost anything, just see a GM to use," and then discovers that nothing he does has any value within the game.

In other words, every plot idea, every game mechanic, and every character added to a game, helps define the reality of the game, and by extension limits the effective Game Space. This is something that many GMs, especially new ones, forget about. The tendency to put in "this plot because it's neat," or "this character, because he'd be fun to play," or even "this game mechanic, because it's really good," without thinking about the statement each plot, character, or game mechanic has on the game reality, is probably one of the most potentially harmful things that can happen to a game. For example, Atlantis has a number of drug related plots. A friend of mine wanted to know why I didn't use a drug mechanic in which drugs were represented as sealed envelopes with a description on the outside, but you didn't know what you actually had or what it would actually do, until you took the drug by opening the envelope. It took some effort to convince the person that the plots in Atlantis involved people being blackmailed because they took drugs, and needing to conceal their addictions, and that this particular mechanic added a great deal of complexity but advanced the game very little if at all.

At this point, of course, I'm getting into Vortex mechanics. To avoid confusion, I am referring to the Vortex as the interaction of all the plots and mechanics actually in the game, and the Game Space as the space of all plots and mechanics that I could put into my game given the fantasy element(s) I have selected for the game. If these definitions are accepted, then it follows that, in a well-written game, the Vortex should always fall within the Game Space. In other words, the Vortex is a subset of the Game Space, and the Game Space is, in turn, a subset of the space of all possible plots, mechanics, etc, that could conceivably be put into a game.

The next question is what happens when the Vortex goes outside the Game Space, producing what may, for lack of a better term, be referred to as "weird stuff." In my experience, this has one of three results: either the weird stuff gets completely ignored, it weakens or destroys the illusion of reality the game needs to project, or it unbalances the game to a possibly ruinous extent. I will discuss each of these cases separately.

The first case is the simplest: the weird stuff has so little interest or effect on the game that the players who encounter it ignore it and the players who are involved in it get so frustrated they simply drop that part of their characters and get involved in something else. In short, it becomes a dead-end plot which, because of its apparent lack of value in the game, is ignored by players who are more interested in putting their limited time into more effective paths to accomplishing their goals.

The second case is somewhat more serious. In this case, the weird elements get absorbed into the game in a fashion which could have been provided within the Game Space but weren't. As a result, the entire structure of reality that the game represents is weakened. For example, several players are playing the roles of wizards in a high-tech science fiction game. Assuming that the magic is not so powerful as to overwhelm the technology, it is likely that the wizards will get coopted by one faction or another. If their abilities and information are so meager that no one considers them worth co-oping, then its back to the previous example. The characters, in that situation, have been reduced to the level of a group of deluded idiots in a go-nowhere plot. So, presuming that these characters are powerful enough to be worth co-opting, the question then becomes, what good are they? What function do they serve that could not have been served by a similar group with slightly more advanced technology or a group which has used its technical knowledge to boost psionic skills? The latter case especially is virtually identical to "magic," except that it provides an explanation within the context of the game. Without that explanation, the players recognize the magic has something which doesn't belong in the game and which, therefore, weakens the illusion. It would be analagous to replacing the Mule in Asimov's Foundation trilogy with Tolkien's Sauron.

The third case is the most obviously serious. In this case, the weird element of the game acts to totally unbalance the game, in potentially disasterous ways. Imagine once again our wizards and high tech game of the previous example, except that this time magic is clearly superior to science. Why? I don't know. However, in every game that I've seen where both magic and science clash, science always loses big time. So here's this science fiction game chugging along and suddenly, at whatever point, 90%+ of the game discovers that they really don't matter since this handful of wizards are inherently able to do anything they please and there's nothing in the game which can stop them. In one game in which this occured, the game started out as a science fiction/spy thriller with the development of time travel as its big plot. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable game with plenty of opportunity for "magic" as in "any sufficiently advanced technology." Instead, the majority of the game, playing scientists, spies, time travellers, etc, suddenly found themselves involved in a war between a "black cult," and a "white cult," plus a some sort of warlock's convention. What did any of this have to do with the rest of the game? Nothing much except that the fate of the world essentially depended on those plots and not on the plots which most of the players were involved in. As a result, the actions of only a very few people really made any difference.

A related situation, similar to the last one, is when a critical element of a game is kept from all but a handful of players. In this case, the weird element in question could make perfect sense in the game, but because it isn't in the players' world view, it becomes very destructive to the game. For example, suppose that SWORD (the villains from Atlantis) were put into a game and only they knew they were in the game and what their goals were. At the end of the game the GMs then announce, "Well, you all did pretty well, but I'm afraid that SWORD managed to garner most of the important political positions, so you're all screwed." The players, of course, are sitting there thinking, "SWORD? What's SWORD? What is this?" Most likely, they're feeling cheated: they've played the game they were given, they faced down the obstacles in their paths, and suddenly they find out that it was all pointless. The SWORD players, meanwhile, are probably feeling like they did a wonderful job of tricking everyone, not realizing that the GMs have effectively cheated them of the opportunity to really trick anybody by not giving anyone any reason to even think about opposing them. Yet another similar example, is when, at the very end of the game, the GMs reveal their big secret which no player could possibly have guessed, and then play out the end of the game for the players. Big deal. It might be fun for the GMs, but it tends to leave the players with very little sense of accomplishment.

The final point I wish to bring up is linkage of plots in a game. Part of what permits GMs to put wildly divergent plots into a game is that little or no attempt is made to weave the game into a unit. Rather, the game becomes a collection of almost completely separate individual games. Thus, your 60 player game becomes, to all intents and purposes, twelve five player games. Each group is busy doing its own little thing and no group really cares about the actions of others. In such a game, politicians are completely uninterested in the "economic plot," characters in the "economic plot," really don't care who gets elected president because that's part of the "political plot," and neither group really cares who committed the murder because that the "police investigation plot." Now, this doesn't mean that every character must have a vital stake in the outcome of every plot in the game, however it does mean that no plot should be so insular that the players in it can ignore the rest of the game or be ignored by the rest of the game. For example, Atlantis contains a plot to elect the mayor of the city. Various groups have people they want to have elected mayor, but most groups really aren't involved at first. As the game progressed, people and groups found reasons why they might care about who was elected based on actions of the candidates and how those actions might affect their public or private goals. As a result, by the end of the game, almost the entire player population had some sort of stake in the outcome of the elections. Another advantage of plots that are linked together in some way is that it gives the players more freedom of action: if they get stymmied in one area, they can always try something else.

Thus, there are several elements which, in my opinion, are needed for a successful game. The GMs must clearly decide what their fantasy element is and be consistent. Having created a Gamespace, they need to stick to it, and not add plots and game elements that make no sense in the reality the GMs are constructing. Plots and events in the game need to matter to more than just the group of players that are directly involved in them, and plots need to be plausible. No matter how fantastic the setting, the GMs need to remember that the characters are being played by people with real feelings and motivations, and therefore write characters whose feelings, motivations, and actions make sense to the players and permit the suspension of disbelief necessary to the success of any game.

Is this all that is necessary to a successful game? Of course not. Someone more familiar than I with Aristotle's Poetics could probably do an excellent job discussing the similarities and differences of games to plays and how the cathartic element Aristotle speaks of is necessary in both, although it may take different forms. And, of course, the ability to write well is a vital component of creating a good game, just as it is when trying to write a book. Finally, the mechanics of game production cannot be ignored. These are all, however, topics for separate articles.

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