Backwards Design

I want to talk about backward design. It’s an interesting concept we discuss in Higher Ed pedagogy that involves deciding first what you are going to assess, then how you are going to assess it, then working backward all the way to “and this is what we do each day in class.” This is, in so many ways, a gross oversimplification of backward design, but it makes the point I need to move forward.

When I read Houses of the Blooded for the first time I was struck by the section where John Wick discusses Jared Sorenson’s three questions. I’ll quote them here:

* What is my game about?
* How does my game do that?
* What behaviors does my game reward and punish?

Now, it’s interesting to me because I often find myself struggling when designing to stay focused. I’m often caught up not so much in “what do I want the game to do…” as I am “how can the game work smoothly for the largest audience?”

I suppose that’s the other side of the education coin… differentiation. But that’s an entirely different post.

I game design terms I suppose, “what do I want to assess?” would really be a question about end-results at the table. How much fun is it? Does it work well? Do the mechanical bits feel right? I suppose there are a million questions I could ask along this line but those three seem pretty vital.

The concept of how to assess this – I suppose – would come down to playtesting. You can’t be at every table that plays your game (though wouldn’t it be nice) but you can engage with those who are trying to play your game and get their feedback. Playtesting is a pretty crucial piece of the puzzle when designing a game, even if you don’t have the means to do it large scale, there is a lot to be learned from engaging with players and GMs and hearing what their interactions with your system (in whatever form it currently takes) went. It’s even better if you can observe some of these sessions.

The important point here though is that this is one area where backward design is difficult to translate… I have run many, many Amber DRPG campaigns, some quite long, and I can honestly say that we are “not doing it right” most of the time. That’s said in jest but honestly, when I run Amber, I tend toward keeping the group together, building actual trust among the younger generation (the failures of their parents as examples and all that) and having external threats to kingdom and beloved NPCs shape much of the early game.Then it tends to evolve into the drama of the lives of characters in the Amber universe…

How do we assess a game’s success at achieving its goals? Does it matter whether it sells a ton of copies or gets x many downloads? What about if it manages to survive 40 years in a variety of incarnations (well, many of us won’t ever have the luxury of knowing if one of our games has this kind of success)? What about spawning imitators?

Notice that none of those criteria have anything at all to do with “is it fun to play?” or “do the people playing it enjoy themselves?” See, while those things might go hand-in-hand, they don’t necessarily. After all, not every prolific set of rules is great. And some otherwise great games get lost to time as publishers die out, etc. And of course, some “dead” games continue to be played by groups all over the place no matter the status of their publication.

I’m drifting a little – but it is another valid question to ask… how do you measure the success of a roleplaying game? If it seems murky and like there are competing answers… well, Higher Ed feels that way too about assessment.

But let’s move on. I think the great question is the last one. What activities will support the stated outcomes? In a classroom, I want to create a set of activities – suited to my students – which allow them to reach the outcomes the professor will be assessing. This part of game design, the boots-on-the-ground, practical, what happens at the table, part is the stuff I’m most interested in. Leave the theorizing behind and just play!

As a designer though, that is incredibly hard. How do you differentiate the experience for different kinds of players? How can you ensure that your system supports its setting in a faithful manner? How do you avoid combat grind, and grappling debacles, and player arguments over who shot first?

Well, one way to do that is to give the GM tools to differentiate at their table. You may not need to create everything because a well-armed GM can overcome many obstacles. In many ways I think this supports the “rulings over rules” philosophy of Old School play. At the same time though, I get into my head the Sorenson question, “What behaviors does my game reward and punish?” and I’m left shaking my head a little because, if the old school has a significant flaw, it is the possibility of paranoia that develops at a table because everything is so deadly. And you can’t just roll a D20 Perception check to bail you out.

It’s that balancing act again.

So maybe I’m focusing my efforts in the wrong direction. I tried out a backward design exercise on my current system project and found it to be incredibly frustrating. Thinking about Jared Sorenson’s questions leaves me equally flummoxed though because I – speaking as a long-tenured GM of many systems (too many) – find that my best gaming experiences have only come when I’ve left the “game” behind and transcended that into the weird homebrew-stew-space that is, “the game works well for us like this.” And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters and the game, as written, is allowed to just, work one way and every group will figure it out for themselves.

But it’s a terrifying thought.

That’s enough rumination for now. Time to get back to the actual planning and writing bits.

As always, thanks for reading.

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One response

  1. Just stumbled onto your site by way of wandering through blogs, but thought I’d throw a question your way.

    This may just be differences of philosophy, but what games have you played? I find that, for me personally, I only feel a need to houserule a game system when I discover, consciously or subconsciously, that the game as written is NOT producing the results I want. And I’ve found that, by and large, a lot of very popular games are very bad like this, and this leads a lot of people, even those who have played quite a few games, to feel like house rules are a “necessary” part of game experience, when in fact, it’s really just that they haven’t found a game that suits them well.

    I haven’t played Houses of the Blooded, but I read through the preview, and I felt it did a good job of encouraging the kinds of behaviors it said it wanted to encourage. That’s a game that’s ‘working as intended’ and should not require a stew of houserules – because it produces the effect it wants to produce. If the effect it wants to produce is not the effect you want to experience, IMHO you are better off seeking a different game rather than ‘making stew’.

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