Recipes, Games and Rules

Posted: October 30, 2013 in System Design
Tags: , , , ,

I don’t know if you’ve been following Vincent Baker’s posts on the object of a game (and a roleplaying game in particular). I’d recommend them. There’s a bunch, but this post and the next one are probably a good place to start.

I won’t link them all, but later there’s one about Recipes vs Games, which says this:

In a game, to get the object, you must contend with the rules.

A super easy example: in the Doomed Pilgrim game, your goal is to see me to my doom, but you can only answer my direct questions, so you may not be able to do it.

In a recipe, to get the object, you must follow the rules.

A super easy example: to make a PB&J, spread two slices of bread, one with PB, one with J, then press them together PB to J.

[Nom nom nom PB&J… But I digress.] I struggled to understand this. Mainly the phrase “contend with”; to me that suggests the rules make it less likely you’ll achieve the object – true for some games, of course, including Chess and Doomed Pilgrim, but not for games like Apocalypse World where the object is (as Vincent himself said) “to find out what the characters will make of their world”. In those games, the object’s given; the rules just make you do particular things to get it.

I asked him about this and he kindly posted his response, including the point:

It would be much, much easier for you to find out what my character Barbecue will make of his world if you could just ask me.

“Hey Vincent, what does Barbecue make of his world?”

“Oh! No sweat. He creates this oasis of normality amongst all the weirdness. He enforces it with good humor and violence only when it’s called for. Gradually his people become wealthy, and some of them set off to establish their own little oases after Barbecue’s model. It turns out that in the face of cheerful normality all the weirdness in the world breaks down, and doesn’t invade, and that creepy-ass metal-gnawing eyeless child was just a figment of his imagination after all. Ta da!”

But no. In Apocalypse World I don’t get to just tell you like that. You don’t get to just ask.

And I see his point. So in a sense the rules do make it “more difficult” for you to achieve the object – in that they make it a little more laborious. But they don’t make it less likely; you’re constantly achieving it, just not in the straightforward obvious way – which, of course, makes the outcome more interesting. You’re still gonna get from A to B, but the rules force you to take the scenic route. Even in win/lose games like Chess and Doomed Pilgrim, where the rules do make it less likely you’ll achieve the object, they do so to make the process more interesting.

So how about this restatement:

A recipe’s rules tell you the most efficient way to get the object.

A game’s rules tell you the most interesting way to get the object.


  1. Kit says:

    I like that characterization of it! Really helps me think about it, anyway.

  2. Rabalias says:

    Well… I’m not sure I buy the whole formula anyway.

    A good recipe tells you the steps to follow and at the end of them you get what you wanted.

    A good game (at least the kind of games we’re discussing) gives you what you wanted when you follow the steps.

    In other words I’m agreeing with you that “following the steps” is an inherent part of getting what you want in a game. I think that’s more important than whether it’s “interesting” – “interesting” is an example of what you want from a game.

    • Blackrat says:

      Really? I can’t think why you’d play a game except because it was interesting. (Obviously there are a lot of different ways to be interesting though.)

      • Rabalias says:

        I guess I think “interesting” connotes something intellectual while for some people the aim might be more emotional or social. So eg I enjoy jenga but I wouldn’t say it was interesting as such.

      • Blackrat says:

        Huh, ok. I certainly didn’t intend that connotation – to me, any of those three goals (and others!) could be “interesting”.

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