A Dozen Fragments On Playground Theory
Erin Hunter’s RPG
After a long and particularly challenging day crafting new mechanics for my upcoming design, I decided to leave my office and walk to the nearby park, where I found the Wise Teacher sitting on a bench. She was eating McDonalds.
I sat down with the Wise Teacher, and she asked me what was wrong, for she could tell that I was struggling.
“Teacher, I can’t figure out whether this game should be fiction-first or mechanics-first. Like, this move feels like it should only occur when the fiction calls for it, but it feels like it would be incredibly dissonant for it to — ”
“Stop that.” The Wise Teacher took a bite from her burger. “Who is the greatest designer of all time?”
I paused. “Well, the Baker family, right? Or Yoko Ono? Or maybe my friend…”
She shook her head. “You have forgotten Erin Hunter.”
I googled something real quick. “The author of the Warrior Cats books? But those aren’t games, those are just… books.”
The Wise Teacher pointed out to the park, at a group of schoolchildren pretending to be cats in the grass. “Behold, Erin Hunter’s game.”
I have found that there are many forms of game design theory, and I only care for that sort of work occasionally. Crucially, I find game design theory incredibly helpful when it can inform my practice, and somewhat meaningless otherwise. Perhaps no theory frustrates me more than sweeping generalizations about how all games work always, in a high-concept way packed full of jargon that serves only to alienate designers and players alike.
However, I love it when game design theory proposes an alternate mindset for thinking about what game design can be like, and encourages the designer to put on the mindset like it’s a hat in order to view their creative work in a new light.
With that in mind, I want you to read any vast proclamations as existing within the frame of this mindset. They are absolute here and here alone, and if they are not useful, they may be discarded.
The Architect’s Dream
The architect awoke in the middle of the night with an idea for a glorious new building. They rushed down to their office, and immediately got to work designing the space. They envisioned a structure where, via moving through its halls, visitors could find joy and meaning. They could not sleep, for their mind was filled with vast colonnades and arches. They spent years designing just the hallways, and envisioned the placement of walls to guide the crowds through the structure to ensure no one would feel too cramped or too constrained.
It would be a decade before the architect’s dream could be realized. On opening day, they beamed as they cut the ribbon and let the crowds into their building. The reviews came pouring in — merely moving through the building was a transcendent experience. Even if not everyone described the same moment of transcendence, and some people got very little out of all of it, the architect was still proud of their work.
One day the architect decided to go through the building themself, and to their horror they saw all the masses walking into their building, climbing over the walls, going back and forth in the hallways, and bumping into each other. Some of them had even moved a few barriers around, creating new hallways where there weren’t any before.
Their friend found them having a panic attack in the bathroom.
“Why is no one moving through my building the way I wanted them to?”
The friend tilted xyr head. “But they’re all still getting what you wanted out of it, right?”
The architect sobbed. “Then what purpose do I have in all this, if I can’t control them?”
Writing games for kids is a really sobering and humbling experience. First off, kids don’t care what you write. They know how to have fun, better than you do. If you wrote something bad, kids will simply ignore you and come up with something better. You cannot run a game for kids and believe that whatever you’d come up with is the best thing you can have. Kids will challenge your design, create complexities, and build something better than anything you could’ve thought of.
So when you run games for kids, you cannot treat the games you write as some sort of experience that elicits certain emotional reactions. Instead, I have found it very useful to treat writing games for kids as a process of welcoming in collaborators.
The first step is to pitch them on your idea. A fantasy helps here — not because you’re more creative than kids, but because an imaginative world is exciting, and invests them in your idea.
Then, give them some tools that they might not encounter elsewhere. These can be literal toys, but they can also be concepts or ways of moving through a space that they might not be used to.
Finally, leave a few gaps, mainly around what it means to have fun.
Under this framework, The Floor Is Lava is the perfect game. It has a compelling fantasy, it invites a new way to explore the world that the players might not have considered before, and since it uses procedural generation to create its levels, the meta is very dynamic.
Happy Little Life (Buyer’s Review)
cw: starvation mention
lovely little slice of life game, with cute art and fun rules-lite mechanics. i bought this game expecting to play out my coffeeshop AU dreams, and almost all of it lets me do that. but the last 20 pages of the book are really weird. it’s an in-depth set of rules for starving to death and dying?? extremely unsettling, and their presence makes it really hard to have fun playing the rest of the game. i think if i ever played this game id never use them, but still??? why are they there? they make everything else feel really creepy
A Creation Myth
Once upon a time there was a giant, sleeping afloat in a vast and empty sea. As he slept, he dreamed of fruit-filled gardens and yellow flowers, and he dreamed for so long and with such love that his body hollowed away entirely, until he was nothing but a skeleton among the waves.
One day, a traveling woman docked her boat and set foot among the bones of the sleeping giant, and found the last vestiges of the dream inside his skull. That night, as she slept inside his ribcage, she dreamed the giant’s dream — although it was not exactly his, for the fruits were different and the flowers were blue.
When the woman awoke she took the giant’s dream and her own dream, and used them to plant many flowers nestled among the giant’s bones. And as more people arrived, they brought their own dreams, until what was once a skeleton was filled with countless blooming fruit trees and many flowers of every color there is.
And they called the giant Game Text, and the garden the Game, and these people understood that the process of game design is simply constructing skeletons for dreams.
Tic Tac Toe
Tic Tac Toe is a solved game. If your objective is to win Tic Tac Toe, then there is a series of moves, trivially easy to memorize, that allow you to win or draw every single game of Tic Tac Toe you ever play.
I remember being a small child and spending an afternoon with a piece of paper, figuring out the combination of moves needed to win every game of Tic Tac Toe. At that moment, I thought the game was bad.
What I didn’t understand was that the function of Tic Tac Toe was to be solvable, and that the joy of the game lay not in the act of winning, but in the process of solving. It is an intentional gap that I may enter and occupy as my own.
An (Incomplete) Taxonomy Of Game Mechanics
Hammers. Mechanics that strike very fast, proving their point quickly. Often this is all we have.
Saws. Mechanics that cut through pre-assumed structures, creating something new from the pieces.
Drills. Mechanics that carve a hole in the game, where a new concept can be inserted.
Fidget Spinners. Mechanics that serve no purpose besides to be fiddled with.
Gloves. Mechanics that invite us to move our bodies differently than we intended to.
Paintbrushes. Mechanics that change the aesthetic depictions of the world we inhabit, without altering the structure.
Candles. Mechanics that mark the passage of time, either through their use or their presence.
Astrolabes. Mechanics that we might never end up using, but their presence reminds us of our aspirations in hopes of someday using them.
Pencils. Mechanics that leave marks upon our dreams that other mechanics may then follow.
Cow Tools. Mechanics that serve no apparent function, but beg for us to find a use for them all while rejecting our ability to assign value to them.
Wands. Mechanics that require us to do something impossible or miraculous in order to use them.
Swords. Mechanics that we shouldn’t use and we know we shouldn’t use, but by sitting there on the table, invite use.
Daggers. Similar to swords, but hidden away.
Skulls. Mechanics that we cannot use, but instead serve as a reminder of the looming inescapable presence of death.
Laws. Mechanics that exist only so that we can ignore and break them, intentionally and with purpose.
Cups. Holds things.
A Different (Incomplete) Taxonomy Of Game Mechanics
Boys are mechanics that often use he/him pronouns, and are forceful, Olympian mechanics that stand straight. They are associated with Fire and Air.
Girls are mechanics that often use she/her pronouns, and are subtle, Chthonic mechanics that stand crooked. They are associated with Water and Earth.
Pixies are mechanics that often use pixie pronouns, and are soft, Olympian mechanics that float in the air. They are associated with Feathers and Bones.
Trolls are mechanics that often use troll pronouns, and are heavy, Chthonic mechanics that do not stand. They are associated with Stone and Wood.
Hills are all over the place where I live, and their presence as a mechanic is one of cradling. They are associated with Earth and Wood, Stone and River, and all other matters carved by the glaciers of old.
Rivers are all over the place where I live, and their presence as a mechanic is one of movement. They are associated with Water and Fire, Soft and Hard, Sudden and Slow.
Clouds are mechanics that hang high overhead, and make their presence known when the time is right with a sudden boom. They are associated with Rain and occasionally Feathers.
Ghosts are mechanics that often don’t use pronouns at all, and are shadows of mechanics that are no longer present. They have no elemental associations.
I am a mechanic that doesn’t use pronouns often right now, and I am mythopoetic in my nature, both loud and soft, but occasionally maudlin. I am associated with the Tower.
And so forth.
The Repulsion Spell
Every year, I teach my students about the fundamental principles of magic. Invocations, cleric healing, hexes and wards. I explain the difference between Exhaustion and Weakness, what happens if someone wearing a Protection From Swords talisman is struck by a blade, and the difference between fire and ice. And every year, I always get great pleasure from describing the effects of the repulsion spell.
When cast, the mage holds both arms up with palms facing out, and screams REPULSION at the top of their lungs. Everyone within ten feet or so is pushed away. This lasts until the mage lowers their arms.
A child raises their hand, and asks what happens if a person is pushed against a wall via a Repulsion Spell. They feel so cunning when they learn that such a fate results in a crushing, brutal death. That child has solved the puzzle of the repulsion spell, and learned how to use it — not just as a defense, but as a weapon.
And that child will watch every year, as another kid asks that same question, and will spot the same look of cunning, and know that the purpose of the Repulsion Spell is neither offense or defense, but instead to teach students that they are smarter than the inventors of magic.
When my friend went to the hospital, they brought my game Sleepaway with them and read it something like a dozen times. It was an anchor to a world they couldn’t otherwise access. And that was play as well.
There are always more ways to play than the designer can envision.
Q: What is your biggest pet peeve in game design?
A: I hate when games try and tell me what counts as playing them. Like when I sit down and I pull out a Powered By The Apocalypse game and it tells me that play is a conversation that is periodically interrupted by moves. Bitch how do you know that, you don’t know me! [laughs] But seriously, I think a lot of modern games assume all the players have the energy to be hyper-engaged and hyper-invested in the game mechanics, and I’m not sure that has to be true. Maybe I want to explore a game without having to think about fictional triggers or make big decisions. Aren’t I still playing, even if I’m just vibing?
Q: But at what point can you separate freeform RP from playing an RPG?
A: Why are we drawing that distinction in the first place? If I hang out with my friends and we all tell stories set in the world of Earthsea, can it not be said that we’re playing Earthsea? And by extension, if we all tell stories in the world implied by Monsterhearts, isn’t that still Monsterhearts even if we’re not using the dice mechanics described by the book?
Q: So, are you saying system doesn’t matter?
A: I don’t think so? I just think like … the text matters, because it’s sitting on the damn table in front of us. We put it down on the table, so obviously it matters to us. It’s the shared set of building blocks that we use to figure out our game.
Q: That sounds like OSR.
A: Is it? I don’t know. I’m 23, when you’re 23 you feel like you’ve figured out everything. But I don’t know shit yet! Maybe I’ll completely disagree in five years. Who knows!
I have designed a playground.
I have added many wooden platforms, so kids can jump from one to the other, or climb them, or stand on them, or something else entirely.
I have added monkey bars, because it can be fun to climb them, and there are many games that emerge from their presence. Additionally, their placement means even an ordinary game like tag takes on a different structure when near them.
I have added a slide, because it is fun to slide down, and because sometimes that is all that is needed. There are metal bolts exposed on the side of the slide, and the kids have invented their own game with those bolts.
I have added a plastic orb window in the midst of the platforms, where kids can hide out and watch what’s going on around them, surveying the structure of the playground and planning their next move.
I have added a large abstract windchime statue, that serves no purpose at all, but it is fascinating and mysterious and begs for understanding. The kids have decided it’s a dragon.
I have added some benches on the side, so kids who don’t want to run around can sit down and rest.
I have added a small wall that separates two parts of the playground. It looks impassable, but kids can scale it easily, if they want to.
I have labeled the old metal monkey bars at the edge of the playground with a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign, but kids will touch it regardless — I worry that the sign makes them want to touch it even more.
To the right is an asphalt parking lot. It is a good place for kids to draw in chalk on the ground, and invent their own structures.
To the left is a wide open field, where all manner of nonsense can occur and my structure is unneeded.
It is surrounded by forests, mountains, rivers, and the sky itself. The playground is cradled in the world and games are brought within it.
I have designed a playground.