Aesthetics of Chaos in Games
© 29 Sep 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Reflections on unpredictability and game enjoyment.


One of my first posts on this blog was about chaos in table-top role-playing games. Later I posted an observation that getting the right feel to a game mechanic is not trivial. As my friend Mark Sherriff has since taught me, game designers get to set the game mechanics, which combine to create a particular game dynamic; that dynamic, in turn, becomes a piece of the overall aesthetic, which is what the game designers are really trying to achieve. This two-level disconnect between goal (aesthetic) and control (mechanic) is one of the central elements that makes games difficult to design.

My main game group is currently playing the so-called 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons depending on how you count, “‍4th edition‍” is at least the 5th edition created, and maybe as much as the 9th (chainmail, D&D, AD&D, AD&D 2e, AD&D 2e skills&powers, AD&D 2e black binding, AD&D 3e, AD&D 3.5e, AD&D 4e). . In that game the bulk of chaos is introduced by rolling a 20-sided die and adding numbers to the result. Early on these additions are few and easily manageable, but as characters become more powerful it is not uncommon for each roll to be something like “‍the 12 I rolled on the die, plus 17, plus 2 because of where my character is standing, minus 5 because of that spell the bad guy cast last round, plus 2 because I’m next to Jimbo, pus 2 because of Aelo’s aura, no, wait, that doesn’t stack with Jimbo’s effect does it? So, just plus, um 38? No, 28, sorry.‍” Such is the mechanic.

This mechanic creates a significant delay dynamic: “‍I jump over the river of lava. (long pause while we add many two-digit numbers in our heads, then compare our answers and re-add when they don’t match up) …and I make it!‍” In other words, a lot of the focus is on understanding what happened: you think a lot about the numbers.

Now, that dynamic creates an aesthetic that emphasizes rules and plays up the importance of single actions over aggregate impact. Having a 5% lower chance of success at some action than another character may not have much actual impact on the outcomes of the game mechanically, but because so much of the dynamic of play is thinking about that mechanic you feel the impact it does have as being very significant. Thus, the emotional reward of a rules-minor boost can be quite large, provided the boost comes to a kind of roll that is complicated. Boosting something like a character’s history rolls, on the other hand, has almsot no aesthetic value because history rolls almost never have a big list of conditional bonuses to add and thus lack the attention-grabbing dynamic of combat or athletics rolls. It is not that they are less important or even structurally different mechanically, it’s just that the complication-inserting part of the mechanics usually does not apply to history rolls, and thus does not inflate their aesthetic importance.

Contrast that with the Cortex rules system. That system also has a base roll plus a lot of conditional bonuses and penalties, but the mechanic is that each such conditional modifier is an extra die of a particular number of sides added to the handful of dice being thrown. Maybe you’d normally roll an 8-sided die and a 6-sided die, but if you have the element of surprise and a really nifty magical crowbar you might get another 6-sided and a 10-sided to roll as well. There’s no in-your-head adding to do creating the dice pool, and there’s not much to do after rolling either: you don’t add them all up, you just add the highest two numbers rolled. One addition of two small integers is all the math you do. Additionally, you collect all the dice that rolled a 1 and use them separately to represent unfortunate side effects.

Cortex’s mechanic creates a very different dynamic compared to D&D 4e. The outcome of an action is almost immediately evident, but there is a trade-off to make in preparing for it. Every additional modifier die you add in increases the potential for success, but it also increases the chance you’ll roll another 1 and have more bad stuff occur even if you succeed. The dynamic thus shifts from action resolution to action selection. Do you use that magic crowbar to deliver a harder blow even though it might vibrate and hurt your hand, or do you go with a simple punch?

The resulting aesthetic is one of in-the-moment risk assessment. Riskier actions are more likely to succeed—and also more likely to hurt. Because each action of both heroes and foes involves its own risk assessment and has the potential to change the risks for the future, there is also more reason to think carefully about when to invest your single-use extras to mitigate risk or boost odds at the right time. In D&D it is usually good practice to lead with your most potent powers and fall back on the less powerful stuff if the powerful opening fails to win the day. In Cortex, it rarely makes sense to invest your extras up front; save them for when the odds need tweaking the most. In short, D&D creates an aesthetic rewarding clever character design; Cortex an aesthetic rewarding clever play in the moment.

These are of course not the only systems to consider, nor is my characterization of them complete. The edition of D&D that followed 4th edition, for example, changed just a few little rules and almost completely undid the dynamic I’ve discussed above. Legend of Five Rings has a set of mechanics that create an aesthetic of caution and frequent character death. Fudge’s mechanics are so simple that chaos-ruled actions, while important, require little thought, creating an aesthetic incentive for story over contest. Betrayal’s mechanic is much like Fudge’s but with the added mechanic that failure reduces future potential significantly, creating a slippery-slope dynamic that supports its horror aesthetic nicely. And so on.

The options for adding chaos are many. The impact of those options are not always obvious. There may be people who can tell how one will change the other in advance; I’m getting better at that, but at present I still still find that I often have to play the game to know how it feels.

One final thought before I close: role-playing games’ feel is more directly impacted by the players involved than the rules system used. In part this is because so many groups change the rules they like the least and in part it is because most of the action is imagination, not dice. But the subtle priority manipulation of focus and dice, while not the is-all-be-all, are undeniable and persistent.

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