Meditations on the Aesthetics of Play

Extra Credits has an episode on the aesthetics of play, and I’ve written on the subject in my GM’s guide, where I refer to them as “elements of fun” because that apparently made more sense to me at the time and I’m too lazy to change it now. In both places, it is recommended that a designer (including a game master designing a specific campaign, regardless of whose engine he’s using) focus on 2-4 elements in order to deliver an experience focused strongly on those elements, and avoid diluting focus by trying to be good at all eight simultaneously.

But okay, let’s say you’ve got your three (ish) aesthetics picked out. How do you balance between them? And for that matter, should you always be making trade-offs between those three and all eight others?

The answer to that second one is a firm no, and I’ll give an example using my GMing style. As I mentioned in the introduction to the guide, my style emphasizes fantasy, narrative, and challenge, prioritized in that order. Expression is not on that list, meaning that I don’t really sell my games as a chance to express yourself creatively. Rather than giving all players a chance to be part of the worldbuilding, I instead run a focused experience where all the worldbuilding is taken care of by one really thorough guy, building a more believable fantasy by trading off on expression. Whether or not that’s a good trade for any particular player depends pretty much entirely on which one of those two aesthetics they like better.

So looking at Petals and Thorns, the game takes place in and around the town of Ramshorn, whose primary inhabitants are humans and halflings with small minority populations of elves and orcs, and with dwarves, goblins, chromatic dragonborn, and aasimar living nearby. Some of those neighbors are friendlier than others, but none of them are in a species-spanning state of total war with Ramshorn. The local goblins have a long history of enmity with the humans and halflings, but it’s not so intense that goblins are killed on sight if they set foot in Ramshorn.

For all that a couple of somewhat off-the-wall race selections like goblins, full-blooded orcs, and aasimar are supported, you’ll notice that there are some core races absent from this list. Gnomes and tieflings are not only not native to the region of Ramshorn itself, they aren’t even native to any of its neighbors. Of course, I haven’t defined every last inch of the world, just the main kingdom and its immediate neighbors, and even those neighbors are loosely sketched outlines with room for forest gnomes in the majority-elf kingdom and rock gnomes in the majority-dwarf kingdom, both of whom are just as capable of emigrating to the main kingdom as the elves and dwarves are, so let’s examine the trickiest expansion races: In the Ramshorn setting, hobgoblins and bugbears are explicitly the very recent results of a mad science experiment by a rogue wizard running a cult. Any player who wants to play as either of those two races would have to tie their backstory directly to that sub-plot or else just so happen to come from a completely separate population of hobgoblins and bugbears that some other wizard worked out however many centuries ago that now they’re just regular goblinoids in the distant kingdom of whereverstan. What a coincidence.

Given how strained that backstory is, and the pre-eminence of fantasy, i.e. a consistent, believable world to be immersed in, over expression, i.e. the ability to dictate the contents of the world and creatively express oneself in so doing, it might seem like this shouldn’t be a problem. A player who shows up to my game looking for expression is a player who has completely ignored my very clear statement of intent regarding what kind of game I’m running, so it’s kind of their fault if they don’t end up having fun, right?

That doesn’t quite feel right, and it gets worse as you examine more and more cases. Genasi, goliaths, kenku, tabaxi, tortles, none of these have any pre-existing place in my existing setting. Expanding the map to include kingdoms that have no function in the setting except to be the homeland of an expansion race that one of my players wanted will add cruft to the setting that could potentially harm fantasy in exchange for opening up options for expression, and isn’t my style built around choosing the former over the latter?

Here’s an even more extreme example: What’re the odds that the people who turn up to save Ramshorn just so happen to be a random-ass grab-bag of minority races that is less than one-third comprised of the human and halfling majority? It would actually significantly improve fantasy to mandate that at least two-thirds of the party must be either humans or halflings, and that the rest must be from races with significant minority populations in the Ramshorn area, things like orcs or elves or goblins (including half-orcs and half-elves), but not things like gnomes, genasi, or goliaths.

There exist some players who think all of this is a good idea, limiting options in order to create a more immersive experience. However, even amongst players who like my trifecta of fantasy, narrative, and challenge, there will be plenty who will look at this as an extreme over-prioritization of fantasy over expression, especially with the exclusion of core races and races from the free downloadable Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. Even though fantasy is my highest priority and expression is so low that it just gets lumped in with “and then the other stuff” at the bottom, there’s still a point of diminishing returns past which sacrificing even more expression in exchange for slightly more fantasy is a bad idea for all but the most hardcore immersive gamers. This is another reason why I’m considering reworking the goblinoid sub-plot of Petals and Thorns to involve the creation of a more obscure, non-playable goblinoid race (worghests or fire hobgoblins are current frontrunners, although I’m still not sure I want to bother – how likely is it that a player will actually want to play a hobgoblin or bugbear?).

You can imagine that if there exists a point of diminishing returns between my highest priority and one of the ones I barely even care about, that there’s also diminishing returns on tradeoffs between my main three. Although narrative generally trumps challenge, I still try to structure my sub-plots such that they are likely to resolve with a boss fight that uses interesting mechanics and preferably one that will interact with PC abilities in an interesting way. I’m willing to trade a bit of narrative in order to make these fights happen, because they are the culmination of the challenge arc. Generally speaking, lesser mooks are introduced early on in order to let players grapple with them on their own, and are then used together in a climactic battle, so the players know how each one works individually but now need to contend with them working together to cover one another’s weaknesses.

All of those individual mook fights are laying the groundwork for the big finish, and I lose a lot of challenge if that big finish never happens, which is why I’m generally willing to sacrifice some amount of fantasy or narrative to making it happen, for example, player characters are bizarrely likely to end up being the ones to confront a major named enemy with a fully diversified set of mooks even when there’s 100+ people on either side, and it shouldn’t be especially likely that they bump into each other at all, let alone just so happen to bump into each other without anyone in the party having gotten separated and the BBEG still has a full stock of mooks hand-crafted to have not only enough total baddies to be a threat without having so many that it’s overwhelming, but also to have a hand-crafted balance of each individual guy as to provide an interesting encounter. The chaos of the battle never just so happens to split the Cleric off from the party before they encounter the BBEG, nor does it ever leave the BBEG without any of his ghoul assassins with the special powers that let them skip over the tanks to attack the players’ back line directly (or whatever). That’s kind of contrived, but it’s worth it to have the challenge.

Likewise, given a choice between stretching out a part of the narrative past what’s ideal from a strictly narrative-over-everything perspective in order to have that battle happen, I’ll generally let the battle happen. Sure, maybe the narrative beat was pretty much over when the vizier’s evil scheme was revealed and the sultan ordered the guards to seize him, and at that point you want Jafar to just poof himself out of the palace instead of getting into a sword fight that ultimately just ends with him poofing himself away regardless. In an RPG, though, maybe you need to give Jafar a chance to show off his basic power set in a fight so that in the climax, when he has three or four additional powers from wishing to be the world’s most powerful sorcerer, players can strategize around knowing his basic power list and that he only has so many new tricks up his sleeve, rather than having no idea how he fights at all. Letting a narrative beat linger a little for Jafar to go a few rounds with the heroes significantly increases the quality of the later boss fight and only drags out the beat a little bit, and in a way that will hopefully be masked by the fun of the challenge the players are engaging with, so it’s worth doing even if you generally prioritize narrative over challenge.

Challenge and abnegation are frequently and heavily opposed to one another, but all the aesthetics of play can end up in opposition at one point or another. Unfortunately, the answer to what to do about this isn’t as simple as having a priority list and always siding with whichever aesthetic is higher priority. Sometimes one aesthetic loses a lot in order to benefit another aesthetic by the tiniest margin, and figuring out how much of a low priority aesthetic you should sacrifice for small gains to a high priority aesthetic is more art than science, and varies from group to group (there are some players who totally do want there to be significant chargen restrictions like banning genasi et al if it means that the party is guaranteed to make sense and fit into the world). All the more reason to keep these aesthetics of play in mind when making these decisions, as they serve as useful tools for resolving difficult design problems.

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