Research Manager, Games to Teach Project, Comparative Media Studies
Professor and Acting Director, Comparative Media Studies
Tensions in Live-Action Roleplaying Game Design
A Case Study with the MIT Assassins’ Guild
Philip Boonyew Tan
Submitted to the Comparative Media Studies Program
on May 7, 2003 in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Science in
Comparative Media Studies
A textual analysis of games of the MIT Assassins’ Guild with an ethnographic and historical slant provides an analysis of five kinds of tensions in the process of the design and the implementation of mechanics in MIT Assassins’ Guild Live-Action Roleplaying games. These tensions are a product of a combination of the history of roleplaying games and other Live-Action simulative activities, the specific logistical and historical circumstances of the MIT Assassins’ Guild and the expectations of the members of the MIT Assassins’ Guild. Game designers and players frequently cite case studies and have developed a useful vocabulary that are worth learning to facilitate further discussion of game design.
Guild game mechanics are designed for feasibility of implementation and execution by the game designers and the players, to provide and hide information from players in a timely manner, to dissociate player decisions from character actions, to enhance the verisimilitude and the atmosphere of the game for the players, and to generate, balance and resolve interesting competition among players. Experienced game designers keep all these tensions in mind while designing mechanics that can satisfy all the criteria and highlight desirable traits that arise from the interplay of the tensions.
Thesis Supervisor: Edward Barrett
Title: Senior Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies
Thesis Supervisor: Kurt Squire
Title: Research Manager, Games to Teach Project, Comparative Media Studies
Tensions in Live-Action Roleplaying Game Design 1
A Case Study with the MIT Assassins’ Guild 1
Tensions in Live-Action Roleplaying Game Design 3
A Case Study with the MIT Assassins’ Guild 3
The Context of the Thesis 6
Game Design as Theory 6
The Subject and Scope 12
My Point of View 18
A Little History 20
Wargaming: The Forebear of Roleplaying 20
The Breakthrough: Dungeons & Dragons 22
Live-Action Roleplaying Organizations 25
The Game of Assassin 27
The MIT Assassins’ Guild 29
Development of Guild Game Mechanics 32
The Phases of Game Design and Implementation 34
Tools of the Trade 38
Heroic Attempts at Efficient Game Writing 41
Abstracting Character Actions for Feasibility 43
Negotiating Game-space 46
In-game Workload 48
Coin Flipping and Decking 50
Who Broke the Mechanic? 53
Bluesheets and Greensheets 56
Item Cards, Name Badges and Wall Signs 58
Memory Packets 64
Research Notebooks and Puzzle Trails 66
Non-Players, Game Halts and Dangerous Play 73
Ability Cards 76
Truthing and Brainwashing 80
Props and Guns 89
Atmospheric Spaces on Campus 93
Performances and Costuming 98
Layers of Epic Level 102
Game Balance Across Functional Differences 109
Economies and Conflict Generation 113
Rez Points, Killing Blows and Stealth Mechanics 115
But Who Won? 118
Future Directions and Credits 119
Appendix A: Nanopunk: Tokyo E-mail Application 125
“Can you give us any reason why we shouldn’t just shoot you right now?”
Game Design as Theory
Before detailing the approach used in the compilation and the presentation of information in this thesis, it might be useful to note how this thesis might fit in the overall body of academic work that currently exists in the field of game studies.
Many writings about games focus on fitting various aspects of game play into some sort of psychological schema. These works provide criteria that can be used as tools for comparing one form, concept or iteration of a game against another. In this way, academics have distilled insights of the values and qualities of play that are valuable for enjoying the experience of the game1 or developing the human brain2 and the social character of the individual. Some studies also list the actual activities within game play as means of opening a window into the machinations of an individual’s psyche3 or a group’s social structure.
Comparative criteria are also a means of highlighting the unique qualities of different genres of games. Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois approaches this objective by separating games into categories of Alea4, Agon5, Mimicry6 and Ilynx7. Instead of assuming that all “play” shares certain inherent and general qualities, genre taxonomy stresses that the umbrella terms of “play” and “game” may describe some very different kinds of activity. This sort of structuralist approach also stresses that understanding the differences can be important for understanding the unique qualities of various types of games that may have very little to do with each other.
Both of the approaches above highlight play as an experience from the point of view of the gamer or as a general activity fundamental to human experience. When it comes to the design and creation of games, however, the writings tend to focus on either age-old games with long-established rule sets or social games with eminently pliable rules. Some ethnographers address game design by looking at instances of modification and adherence to rules, finding indicators of underlying social processes within a community. Katie Salen8 mentions how different children can have their own unique understanding of what it means to “play nice,” illustrating how play can be influenced by Bernard Suits’ “lusory attitude9” instead of a rule set. Clifford Geertz’s seminal article on the game of Balinese cockfighting10 is a significant essay in cultural anthropology in which the authority of individuals and cliques has a fundamental role in the process of play.
Formal academic forays into game design tend to fit the general categories of systems analysis or mathematical game theory11. There is a wealth of research in abstract algorithms, paradigms and rules of thumb that may be equally relevant in the production of commercial games and the simulation of complex systems. Such work has proved to be a helpful base for building discussions regarding the play of commercial games; recent studies on emergent game play in commercial games borrow some of their vocabulary12 from writings on systems and probability theory.
My thesis certainly borrows from all these academic threads of game and play, with a particular emphasis on game design. I discuss both the rituals of game play and the evolution of game rules as a function of the social interactions of a specific group of people. I also look into various methods used to provide role-players with a variety of entertaining experiences and interesting choices, and one look at my index should be evidence that I have not avoided the taxonomy bug.
However, in my examination of the writings by all of the theorists listed above, as well as their peers in the footnotes, there is little information for outside observers who wish to gain insight into the way that experienced game designers understand their own craft. Academics use terminology that is well suited for an academic audience, and indeed, some game designers may see their rule sets and game mechanics as a means of influencing social interaction or for generating a specific set of ludic interactions. However, such designers are relatively rare; those who consciously employ such considerations while in the process of designing their games are even rarer.
Game designers may use checklists to see if their games fit within taxonomies of game play but these lists are often markedly different from those written by academic theorists. They may also employ mathematical formulae and concepts of systems dynamics in the service of producing a playable game. However, the game designer is more likely to use vocabulary that eschews “solution sets” and “symmetric dependence” for phrases such as “group plots” and “hit points.”
Even though many games pose interesting systems optimization challenges, these qualities often arise outside of the consideration the designer, who is usually more concerned with balancing playability against world fidelity. Furthermore, most academic analyses of game designs only apply after the designer has completed his or her work, benefiting from a point of view that game designers do not possess in the thick of creating their game.
In fact, there seems to be a particular lack of attention or respect for the vocabulary and the processes adopted by game designers for the very purpose of understanding, optimizing and expediting their craft. Yet some groups of game designers, especially those who are in close contact with other designers within their genre of gaming, have been able to develop elaborate and often comprehensive techniques that allow them to create effective and fulfilling gaming experiences for their players. They may borrow concepts from the academic arena of games and play but instead of trying to illustrate complexity or compare disparate traits, these techniques help predict potential game interactions and tune the experience of game players to respond to the expectations of game designers.
To supply a framework that facilitates the understanding of discussions and rules-of-thumb employed by game designers, it might help to see game designers as a “community of practice,” a term that Wenger coins to describe a creative community engaged in an interplay of theory and practice where “neither is the concrete solidly self-evident, nor the abstract transcendentally general; rather, both gain their meanings within the perspectives of specific practices and can thus obtain a multiplicity of interpretations.”13 He examines “dualities” operating in such communities by defining dualities as “a single conceptual unit that is formed by two inseparable and mutually constitutive elements whose inherent tension and complementarity give the concept richness and dynamism.” Dualities are not opposites; they are two dimensions that interact but do not necessarily define a spectrum; they imply each other and do not substitute for each other; they transform their relation and do not translate into each other; they describe interplay and are not classificatory categories. His dualities are one application of “tensions” as elaborated by Engeström,14 which operate in much the same way but do not necessarily require that all the factors influencing the creative work of a community be grouped into dualities of two. I am thus employing this concept of “tension” to describe the often-conflicting forces that apply to the decisions of game designers as a step towards the improved availability of information regarding the processes employed by game designers themselves.
This thesis addresses this issue by taking a close look at a very specific group of game designers and drawing out some commonalities among assorted tensions that apply to the design and implementation of their games, citing examples that the game designers themselves use as case studies for innovative and refined game mechanics. Gathered from close interactions with these game designers and their associated player-clientele over three years, the case studies in this thesis should provide some useful information for theorists who may be interested in observing game design at the level of actual application.