Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Aesthetics of Role-Playing Games

Penny Arcade TV hosts a very interesting series on video game design called Extra Credits.

This week they did a segment on genre in video games and spent a lot of time on terminology. You can see the entire episode here - http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/aesthetics-of-play.

I’m an English Lit major, so terminology and definitions are things I really like.  Watching this episode and thinking about how these ideas apply to RPGs has really crystallized my thoughts regarding random character generation, which I discussed recently.

This information comes from the MDA framework, which was developed for use in the Game Design and Tuning Workshop, taught at the Game Developers Conference.

GDC is focused on video game development, but from my perspective, there is no real difference between video games, board games and tabletop role-playing games in terms of design and tuning.  As we will see, the MDA framework can just as easily apply to any tabletop RPG.

MDA stands for:
Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics, the 3 components of game design.

Essentially, MDA breaks the consumption of a game down into three elements, Rules, Systems and “Fun”, and identifies Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics as the design counterpoints of those three elements.

Mechanics are the rules/systems that make up the actual game.
Dynamics are the play experiences that those mechanics create.
Aesthetics are the underlying reasons we go to the game for.

The Aesthetics component can be broken down further, and each game generally hits specific core aesthetics.  When somebody says to me that something “feels” right, then I automatically assume they are talking aesthetics.

MDA lists 8 core aesthetics:
Sense Pleasure – how the game stimulates the senses.
Fantasy – the ability to step into a new role while playing the game.
Narrative – the game as drama.
Challenge – the game as obstacle course
Fellowship – working cooperatively to achieve a goal.
Competition – games as expression of dominance.
Discovery – the act of uncovering the new.
Expression – the need to express self in the game.
Abnegation – game as pastime – desire to play to disengage or “zone out”.

Different RPG’s, indeed different versions of the same RPGs, focus on different core Aesthetics.

OD&D, for example, is largely focused on Challenge, Fellowship and Discovery.  Fantasy enters into it to a lesser extent, as do Narrative and Expression – but really, old-school D&D as written isn't as much about those aesthetics.  For many people who have been playing D&D for a long time, there is also a sense pleasure aspect to rolling handfuls of dice or putting the first few lines on a blank sheet of graph paper.

“My” version of D&D – the one I played the most of, is 2e, and 2e, especially with the splatbooks, has a fairly different set of core aesthetics.  It’s much more about Fantasy, Narrative and Expression, piled on top of the Fellowship and Discovery aspects of earlier versions of D&D.  I feel like the Challenge aspect is somewhat reduced, too.  Not that it isn’t challenging, just the Challenge as a core aesthetic takes something of back seat other aspects.

How about you?  What is your favorite RPG and what are the aesthetics that draw you to it?