2015-07-04 : The Object of an RPG is to...

Someone asked, so this is just an index of the posts I made a year ago about the objects of RPGs.
2014-07-15 : Procedure, Components, Object, Strategy, Style
2014-07-16 : When is a game a game?
2014-07-17 : Strategy vs Style
2014-07-18 : Objects of RPGs
2014-07-18 : Non-Endstate Objects, Strategy & Style
2014-07-19 : Aside: Designing a Bell Curve
2014-07-21 : The Object and Particular Strategy
2014-07-21 : Reminder: Object Schmobject
2014-07-23 : The Trouble with RPGs
2014-07-24 : The Trouble with RPGs (ii)
2014-07-25 : RPGs Have Objects, Q&A

I don't mind revisiting this stuff, so if you have any questions about any of it, ask away.

1. On 2015-07-06, ken filewood said:

Here is questions about the thread 'The Trouble with RPGs (ii)':

You started with the premise:

Say that you've created a game with an object?

1) Why would I want my game to have an object?  I.e. under what set of game-designer circumstances would it be desirable (or vice versa) to make sure my game has an object?

2) What is an object of a game if it is not stated?  Is it even possible for a game to have an unstated object?

I understand that participants in a game can (always do?) have their own purposes, agendas, motives etc. that are not stated in the rules and may or may not remain constant over time.  But how can a game have an 'object of the game', if it is not defined as part of the game by some kind of statement?


2. On 2015-07-06, Vincent said:

Ken: Good questions!

1) The only reason I can think of for why you'd want your game to have an object, is if you want to create a game, and the game you want to create has an object.

There's no earthly reason to create a game at all, except that you're moved by your muse to do so. If you're moved to create a game with an object, that's all the reason there can be. If you're moved to create a game without one, same thing.

2) I take the design of a game to be non-identical to its text, since a game's design is made of processes but its text is made of words. Thus it's easy for me to imagine designing a game with an object, but not including the object in the text.

I don't know why you'd do this on purpose, but maybe you have your reasons. I can also easily imagine doing it by accident.

By writing an incomplete game text, have you created a second game, one with no object? Possibly!

But still, overwhelmingly, games have objects, even RPGs, and you can find them in the text.


3. On 2015-07-08, ken filewood said:

1) Yep, agreed!

So: What are games without objects like to play, as compared with games that have objects of various kinds?  What are the textures and aspects of that?  How can we use that in our designs?

How can we apply this thinking in designing sub-systems?

2) Re. I take the design of a game to be non-identical to its text:

What I think I was getting at was the idea that 'the object of the game' entails some self awareness about the object on the part of the player making the moves. 

If I don't know that I'm pursuing a particular object of the game, then I am not pursuing it - so it is not an object of mine. 

By writing an incomplete game text, have you created a second game, one with no object?

I think so. 

I also think it might be possible to play the 'original' game that is incompletely represented by the text.  But that would depend on whether I can play it by myself? (I take explanations of my game expressed in forms other than text as extensions of 'game text')

There are many games I can play without anyone else knowing their objects.  But are all games like that?

I begin to see how thinking about this kind of thing might have lead you into the demon of the ring game.


4. On 2015-07-10, Vincent said:


What are games without objects like to play...?

I don't know of any games without objects for sure. My guess is that the things we do that are obviously games, have obvious objects, and so the answer to your question is, "it's not obvious that we're playing at all."

But if you have any games without objects in mind, say them! I might be missing something.

Oh and right on about the Demon of the Ring.

I take it as a discipline, kind of: since I can only speculate and suppose what goes on in other people's heads, I'd better not base my thinking about games on what's going on inside their players' heads.


5. On 2015-07-12, E. Torner said:

"What are games without objects like to play...?"

Let me get nerdy with this for a second. Feel free to ignore!

This sounds like the border between "allotelic" (motivated by some predetermined outside force) and "autotelic" (motivated by players alone) play, as discussed by this guy Jan Klabbers (The Magic Circle, 2009).

Allotelic play is, I dunno, playing professional football. Autotelic play is a pickup game of bloody knuckles. The object of the former is so obvious that it hurts, whereas the object of the latter is pretty opaque to us, and much more has to do with the metamotivational states of the players involved.

Metamotivational states??
Well, you've got your telic mindset, which is when players come in with a goal-driven, serious mindset: I've got to play this game to survive. And then your paratelic mindset, which is classic playfulness, or as Jaakko Stenros puts it: "emphasis on immediate gratification, fun, emphasis on process, passion, spontaneity, freedom, willingness to experiment, disposition towards make-believe, and the tendency to prolong the activity if possible."

You can write games for all kinds of ideals! You can force people to play Dungeons & Dragons at gunpoint (allotelic play, telic mindset), and you can give them a bunch of crayons and say "If you'd like, make a game from these. Or whatever." (autotelic play, paratelic mindset).

The objects of games afford and interact with the states of play and playfulness of their players. (That's a tongue-twister.)

Anyway, this can all be found in Jaakko Stenros's dissertation "Playfulness, Play and Games," which I highly recommend:


6. On 2015-07-13, ken filewood said:

That's the kind of thing I was thinking about.

Except the special words.

I wasn't thinking about the special words.  8)


7. On 2015-07-13, ken filewood said:

I am not sure whether there are games without objects, either.

The sorts of things that occur to me are mostly activities I remember from childhood. 

For example, some kinds of make-believe - 'Doctors and Nurses' say (but not 'WWII soldiers') - didn't really have an object.  Or making up stories with/ using/ about toy animals, toy soldiers, toy cars or glove puppets.

Or for younger children: peek-a-boo, spontaneous making-faces-at-each-other, or 'pat-a-cake', 'ring-a-ring-a-rosie', or 'horsey rides'.

For grown-ups some kinds of aimless, intuitive play might count: sand-play, action painting, doodling, art therapy.

I am thinking about games where the player's focus is on the current moment rather than a future state.

Maybe some of these are not games in the sense you mean.  But I think the 'make-believe' category is at least interesting in an rpg context.

Your 'discipline' sounds both useful and respectful.

So what do you base your thinking about games on then?


8. On 2015-07-13, Vincent said:

Ken: My take on those kinds of pretend games is that they do have objects, they're just really easy. "Let's pretend to be doctors and nurses" IS the object of the game.

Here's an example. I was playing a pretend game with my then 6-year-old. We were super agents on missions with high-tech gadgets. We started by declaring what our gadgets were. He declared that he had, I don't really remember, maybe a backpack that let him fly up to orbit and eyeglasses that shot freeze rays.

I declared that I had a watch that I could use to cook eggs, and a shoe that I could use to iron my clothes. I could tell that he was nonplussed, but he didn't realize yet that I was throwing the game, so he started describing our mission. It was, naturally, to fly up to the space station and neutralize some threat that was probably vulnerable to freeze rays. Halfway through, I interrupted him with "but I can't go on a mission today! I have to iron my clothes."

He frowned at me and said that back at base they had a cloning chamber, so that I have a duplicate, so that's no problem. I said, "that's not fair! How come my duplicate gets to go on missions while I have to stay here and iron my clothes?"

He was pissed.

My take is that the object of the game wasn't to defeat the space threat - that was given - but to simply see the game through to the end. That's a challenging enough object for a 6-year-old's attention.

(Also, what kind of jerk is it who intentionally throws a cooperative game with a 6-year-old? This kind. A real jerk.)


9. On 2015-07-13, Vincent said:

Evan: Check me on this!

Allotelic, autotelic, telic, paratelic - these are about a player's commitment to pursuing the object of a game, or not, and maybe why, or why not?

Like, the object of Bloody Knuckles is super obvious - make your opponent quit first - but why a couple of human beings would decide to play it together isn't as.

Another common example around here is sitting down to teach someone Chess. My take is that the object of Chess doesn't change, but your commitment to pursuing it does, in particular ways, because of this goal you're bringing with you into the game from outside.

If you tell me that Jaakko Stenros' dissertation is oh my god so on point, then I'll keep working through it. I'm on page 22 now. Wish me luck!


10. On 2015-07-14, ken filewood said:

"Let's pretend to be doctors and nurses" IS the object of the game.

OK.  So you would say the activity itself is the object.

If I were to look at it that way, maybe the only way to have an object-less game would be to play a game where you make your 'moves'  without intent.  I'm not sure I would call that a game.

But you have already explored that territory.


11. On 2015-07-14, ken filewood said:

@E. Torner

Playing D&D with a gun at my head?  The example is so vivid that I fear it may have distracted me from your main point...

Participants' motivations for playing a game, or for playing it in a certain way, are very interesting.

I'm thinking about its objects as intrinsic parts of a game.  So my extrinsic or intrinsic motivations to play a game don't change its objects.  The object of chess remains 'checkmate your opponent' regardless of whether someone is pointing a gun at me or quietly sending healing thoughts my way. 

So I agree with Vincent's example about teaching someone to play chess.  Object same, motivations and strategies different.


12. On 2015-07-14, Dan Maruschak said:

1) Do you have a working definition of "Object of the game"?
2) What role or function does an object have in a game? Why is it there? What does it do?
3) Do you have examples of implicit-object games where you are prepared to say that the object has been correctly identified and say what it is?
4) Surely it's possible to guess wrong about the implicit object of a game. Do you have a method of figuring out whether something really is or isn't the object of a game?
5) What is the difference between a game that has no object and a game that has the implicit object "do the things the game said to do" as in your "let's pretend" example?
6) Do games that have explicit objects also have an additional implicit object of the "do the things the game said to do" type?


13. On 2015-07-14, Vincent said:


1) Nope. I have lots of examples, though.

2) It creates tension, play, dynamism, with the rest of the game.

This is most straightforward in games where the object is a keystone rule, like "try to keep the balloon from touching the ground" or "whoever quits first, loses." But games' objects don't have to be so straightforward in order to create tension with the other rules. For instance, there are games where the object is unachievable, as in Tic Tac Toe played between adults or High Five the ISS, or where the object is achieved just by seeing the game through, as in Apocalypse World or Eat Poop You Cat.

3) No. I can tell you my interpretation of some games whose texts are ambiguous, but that's what it is, my interpretation.

For example: By my interpretation, the object of Sorcerer is to (a) see your character's kicker resolved, with (b) your character coming out on top, if you can manage it.*

4) No. The best I've got is to try to figure out the missing piece or pieces that create good tension with the existing rules. This is how I arrived at my interpretation of Sorcerer, for instance, as opposed to "the object of Sorcerer is to see your character triumphant over her enemies" or "the object of Sorcerer is to bind the most demons."

Well, that, and also Sorcerer's text isn't THAT ambiguous.

5) I don't know for sure of any games with no objects. Like I said to Ken, my guess is, the less obvious that it has an object, the less obvious that it's a game at all.

However, let me correct you on a couple of points:
- I think that the object of "let's pretend to be doctors and nurses" is explicit, not implicit.
- I think that the object of "let's pretend to be doctors and nurses" is to successfully pretend to be doctors and nurses, not to merely undertake to pretend to be doctors and nurses. This is how I threw the game I played with my kid, by unsuccessfully pretending to be a super agent on a mission.

6) Do you mean, like, "the object of Chess is to checkmate your opponent's king, by playing Chess" or "the object of nickel stakes Poker is to take your friends' nickels, by playing Poker"? That seems unnecessary to me, but whatever.

* In Sorcerer, part of the tension of play is that you have to judge and decide how hard and how far to push for (b), when (a) is developing against it. Or, from the other point of view, how hard and how far to put off (a) in order to keep (b) on the table.


14. On 2015-07-14, Dan Maruschak said:

"The best I've got is to try to figure out the missing piece or pieces that create good tension with the existing rules."

But if games can have zero objects how do you determine if there's a missing piece or not?

"I don't know for sure of any games with no objects."

I believe that this game has no object, just procedures. I could be wrong, or possibly using different definitions than you. Do you believe this game has an object? If so, what is it?

"That seems unnecessary to me, but whatever."

This is the same reaction I have to the things I've been describing as your "do the things the game said to do" objects. It strikes me as a somewhat circular process that's predicated on the idea that there must be an object so you end up plugging in this thing that, to me, seems to play a very different role than objects play in games that clearly and unambigously do have objects (e.g. checkmate your opponent).


15. On 2015-07-14, Vincent said:

Dan: The suspense, the tension, in Four Panels comes from not knowing until the reveal whether the emergent picture makes sense or is funny, right?


16. On 2015-07-14, Dan Maruschak said:

Vincent: I don't think there's much suspense or tension at all. Maybe other people experience that when they play it, but I think of the final reveal as a fun bonus, not something that informs my play while it's happening. If somebody asked I would tell them not to worry about that final "reveal" step and just focus on following the procedures and draw what they're supposed to draw right now. (My view is that the important thing is the consequentiality from step to step, not that there's a throughline to some endpoint that carries a payoff. I could be wrong, but that was the theory I was working off of while designing it.)


17. On 2015-07-14, Vincent said:

When I played it, I did look forward to the reveal, but I didn't try to draw toward it in any way. I agree with you that following the immediate procedures is the main thing.

But so yeah, no, it wasn't a roller coaster, but when I played it I definitely got a little enjoyable sequence of suspense and resolution out of it. You haven't? What do you get out of it?


18. On 2015-07-14, Dan Maruschak said:

Like I said, for me it's mostly about the moment-to-moment play, and then there's a somewhat distinct enjoyable activity at the end where you pass them around. I'm not usually thinking about consequences beyond the person I'm passing to. Drawing is somewhat intrinsically enjoyable and satisfying, and doing it in this context cuts down on some of the problems (e.g. you usually have some input so there's less blank page syndrome, you have the "it's just a game" excuse to fight off perfectionist impulses). It's especially satisfying when I can pull off a deadpan or surreal joke with the image I'm drawing, or if something I draw turns out better than I expected. (And I also have a theory that the knowledge that my drawing will be built off of by the next person helps it feel more meaningful and therefore has an element of gamelike fun that just drawing for the sake of drawing doesn't have. But whether I'm actually feeling that independently or it's just confirmation bias is hard to say).


19. On 2015-07-14, Vincent said:

Dan: Still, don't you find it suggestive that you did choose to include the reveal in both the game's design and its text? You could have had us manipulate the panels in such a way that there wasn't any reveal, but you chose not to. How come?


20. On 2015-07-14, Dan Maruschak said:

Vincent: No, I don't find that particularly suggestive. The panel manipulation was designed for the turn-to-turn consequentiality, not any end-game payoff. If I recall correctly the existence of the final combination was just serendipitous during the design process. It's there in the instructions because it's cool at the end, but I'm skeptical that it informs play while you're playing (which is what objects do). (And like I said earlier I could be wrong, it may be hard for me to disentangle my design intent from my subjective experience of play, but I haven't yet seen any compelling reasons to believe I am wrong).


21. On 2015-07-14, Vincent said:

Surprising! That reveal is such a standard of the genre.

Hey, before I go on, you understand that I'm not trying to convince you of anything, right? You agree with me, you don't, you see the value of what I'm saying, you don't, you see reasons to think I'm right, you see none - it's all the same to me. I'm answering your questions because you're asking, that's all. Okay?


22. On 2015-07-14, Dan Maruschak said:

Vincent: I understand that you do not care what I think, yes.


23. On 2015-07-15, Vincent said:

Chin up! You're like "...I haven't yet seen any compelling reasons to believe I am wrong," but you shouldn't hope for compelling reasons out of me, that's all.

So, to answer your question, yes, I believe that Four Panels has an object. Here's why.

Imagine that my sister Ellen comes to visit me, and I say, "hey, I know this game, Four Panels. Let's play it."

She likes games, so she says, "sure! How's it work?"

I'm already folding some paper. "See, I draw a figure on this panel, then you draw a figure on this panel, and then-"

"Hold on!" she says. "What's the object of the game?"

"Oh, it's no big deal, it's just to see what we've got at the end."

"Cool, okay! Carry on."

The end.

By telling her that the object of the game is just to see what we've got at the end, I've given her exactly the information she was asking for.

In the case of Four Panels, I think that both of these are perfectly true:

"Oh, it's no big deal, the object is just to see what we've got at the end."

"Oh, there's no object. We'll just play through and see what we've got at the end."

And that's fine. "The object of the game" is natural language, not jargon, not part of a model. Its purpose is to communicate, not to rigorously distinguish between one thing and another.


24. On 2015-07-16, ken filewood said:

2) It creates tension, play, dynamism, from 13 above.

OK, I see how that works.  It seems to me that other elements of a game can also contribute to these elements.  But you're describing or sampling rather than defining.

To me the characteristic 'role or function' of an object is to guide a player's choices among legal moves.  But a given player's 'objects' might differ from the stated, implied or 'typically adopted' objects of the game.

I gather you'd rather not discuss the definition.

So what do you think of 'the object of the game is to have fun' as a piece of game text?


25. On 2015-07-16, ken filewood said:

Something weird happened to me apostrophes.


direct link

This makes...
VB go "fixed 'em."

26. On 2015-07-17, Vincent said:

Ken: Yep.

On "the object of the game is to have fun": it depends on the game. I can't really think anything of it, absent a game.


27. On 2015-07-18, Ben Lehman said:

it strikes me that if the object of the game is to have fun, it's probably unstructured play.


28. On 2015-07-18, Vincent said:

Ben: I can imagine a game that's like "the object of the game is to have fun, but you might not be able to do it! The game's structures will really try to stop you, and you'll have to be smart, dedicated, and maybe a little perverse to pull it off."


29. On 2015-07-19, Ben Lehman said:

sure. I'm not sure that's a good game.


direct link

This makes...
DCA go "I'd say most 80s-90s, heavy-crunch games qualify! ;)"
VB go "That's a good quip but..."*

*click in for more

30. On 2015-07-27, anon. said:

Hi, my two cents for now (and sorry for my Englitalian). :)
Starting from the 'object' of a game.
Games are different between them and 'difficult to be described'.
Anyway, all of them share some common characteristics.
I don't want to go deeper in Caillois and other more recente game theory, I think that we're on the same rails for the moment.

Most Games look like to be easy to be described in terms of object, procedures, components, strategy and style. Especially abstract games and thematic board games.
IMO, RPG games fail to be strictly classified in this way, because:
1) They need to be "treated as a game", and in that sense they need "object, procedures, components, strategy and style.
2) Their nature is mixed with storytelling practices and techniques.

Following (1) you simply design games.
Following (2) you may become a very good and famous fiction author.
RPG designers and Gamers follow in between.

Hope you get what I mean...


31. On 2015-07-27, Carrie said:

Vincent: In the discussion for "The Object and Particular Strategy," you said, "The rules of Apocalypse World are designed to help the MC switch effortlessly and appropriately between opposition and referee, instant by instant, judgment call by judgment call."

Would you mind elaborating on that? I think I see where the opposition is (MC moves and threats) and where the refereeing is (making sure players use the correct moves), but I haven't yet grasped where the switchy bits are.

Super enlightening stuff?thanks for sharing your insights!


32. On 2015-08-02, Vincent said:

Carrie: It's hard to see, because game design means covering your tracks.

But squint at reading a situation's "which enemy is the biggest threat?" You can see how, for just one second, the game makes the player take on the job of being opposition (to themselves!) so the GM can make a referee call. Similarly "which enemy is most vulnerable to me?" For just one second, the GM isn't opposition, so can make a referee call.

The game's full of little shifts in creative burden, as tiny as these and smaller.


33. On 2015-08-04, Matt said:

This REALLY interests me: what is the (interpreted) object of Ars Magica? (Plus how and why the play experience emerging from the rules clashes with it?)


34. On 2015-08-08, Vincent said:

Matt: Well, let's see what the book has to say. I can't put my hands on my 2nd Edition book so 4th will have to do.

It says:

p12, under "Welcome": "[You] will play a magus... Your character will wield the magical energy that pervades the world, and seek great arcane knowledge. You and your fellow players will also portray the loyal companions and grogs that stand with the magi in their covenants. These stalwart protectors provide a buffer between the magi and the mundane world that often misunderstands their power and motives."

p13, under "Playing Ars Magica": "Usually the storyguide has created a long-term plot against which individual adventures are set. This overarching storyline is called the saga, and the shorter adventures within it are stories."

p16, intro to the "Characters" chapter: "To tell the stories of Mythic Europe, you will need a character. If you are telling the story of an entire covenant, you will probably need more than one."

p174, under "Storytelling": "Telling a great story is not easy, and nothing can be written here that will turn you into a teller of great tales overnight. Becoming a great storyteller requires nothing less than experience."

p175, under "The Storyguide": "In Ars Magica, the storyguide has the opportunity to weave an epic story in which the players can, through their characters, perform heroic acts and epic deeds that are the stuff of legend and myth."

So that seems pretty clear to me as far as the object goes. To tell great stories about the magi, their covenants and companions, their interactions with the mundane world, their heroic acts and epic deeds.

Is that how you'd interpret it too?


35. On 2015-08-14, Matt said:

Vincent: I dont have the 4th edition, so thank you for the quotes.

I agree with your interpretation, the object of AM 4E seems quite clear now. What I cannot understand is how they want to achieve this object with these tools ('rules'). I mean, do they really think that you should play this game for years? Do they think that slow play is fun?

The game requires a lot of prep from every participant even before the first session. The character generation and conflict resolution mechanics support adventure gaming, 'adventure pacing'. I simply cannot imagine that I could make a epic story arc about the covenant within let say 6 short session (actually, we've always failed). But that's what you want with AM, right? Or at least, that's what I want :)


36. On 2015-08-14, Vincent said:

Ha! Yes, years.

I played Ars Magica in overlapping groups and covenants from 1990 to 2006. It's 6 sessions of play before you've even introduced all your PCs.


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