Metaphor: What’s the Meta-FOR?

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So, three separate people called my attention to the Bloodborne card game recently. And it’s kind of a funny coincidence. Why is that a funny coincidence? Well, first of all because the three people are all completely unconnected. It just so happens that all three of them noticed the game and thought of me and told me about it. And it’s not as if the game just got released or just got in the news or anything. The game has been floating around for several months. And it’s not as if I’ve been talking about Bloodborne a lot. I finished my livestreamed playthrough of Bloodborne two months ago as well. So the topic isn’t fresh by any stretch. But it’s also weirdly coincidental because I’ve been playing around with some mechanics in D&D and Pathfinder for a demonic possession effect for a secret project. How is that related? Well, it comes down to the way I approach creating new rules and mechanics for RPGs in general. And THAT’S related to why I’m extremely dubious of the Bloodborne card game and brushed off all three recommendations. Why is it worth a discussion? Well, because some of my fans have suggested I write an article or two about game design. And I don’t really know about game design. I’ve never actually designed a whole game. But, there IS a very useful game design concept wrapped up in all of this.

Let me go back to the start of the story and explain WHY I’m not really interested in the Bloodborne card game. And then we’ll get to some useful s$&% about game hacking and game design. I promise.

First of all, Bloodborne is an awesome video game on the PS4. It is a spiritual successor to Dark Souls, a series of extremely challenging medieval fantasy action games about trying over and over and over to kill monsters way more powerful than you and trying to make sense of a story that the game is trying to keep secret for some reason. Bloodborne is basically the same, except it’s based on Germanic and Lovecraftian horror in a Victorian setting rather than being based on fantasy. Gameplay consists of mastering the combat mechanics through experience, trial, and error. It’s fast, frenetic, and extremely challenging. It also has a tendency to frustrate some people. Which is fair. The game isn’t for everyone. In addition, the game also includes heavy exploration elements with lots of side paths and secrets to discover. In point of fact, most of the lore that makes the game make any kind of sense is hidden and needs to be discovered. The game is primarily single player, but allows players to occasionally help each other in limited ways. But, unlike the previous games in the Souls series, Bloodborne deemphasizes even these limited multiplayer aspects except for the ability to send messages to other players about the secrets you’ve discovered. Basically, the game emphasizes challenge and discovery and also offers a strong, if buried, narrative. It’s intense combat arcaheology. And the players can pool their knowledge to figure out the game’s secrets. But otherwise, it’s lonely, isolated, and disempowering. It is, after all, a horror game.

Now, I loved the game. It hit everything I like. Intense challenge, exploration, discovery, and lonely self-reliance. And I made no secret of how much I loved Bloodborne. I was obsessed. The other day, my girlfriend and I ended up in a local game store. I had to buy a new miniature skeleton and miniature orc to replace the ones that came in my Reaper Bones “Fail to Learn to Paint Miniatures” Kit because I ruined them and I had to start again. I also ruined both of my brushes. Because when I screw up learning a new hobby, I don’t do it small. Holy f$%& am I not good at painting miniatures.

ANYWAY, my girlfriend noticed the Bloodborne card game on the shelf and said “I bet you’d love this,” and I scoffed. It’s okay. She’s used to that. I pretty much communicate primarily by scoffs and sarcasm. Why did I scoff? Well, I’m very suspicious of board games based on other media. First of all, I should say I’m not a HUGE fan of board games in general. I like them. I’ll play them. But I view board games as something you settle on doing because you don’t have enough victims to play a real game like an RPG. In the hierarchy of games, the top of my list is running RPGs. Then comes sending everyone home so I can play a video game. Then comes playing a board game. Board games are what you do when you have entirely the wrong number of people for anything you’d rather be doing.

I looked at the back of the box. Basically, three to five players work together to kill horror monsters in a randomly generated dungeon and collect all the blood. Then they kill a boss monster together. If they survive, one player with the most trophies is the winner. So, yeah, on the surface, it’s a Bloodborne game. Kill monsters, collect blood, survive. But that’s just the surface. And that’s where my problem with most licensed board games come in. They wear the skin of the license, but the mechanics are just mechanics. I mean, come on: go into a dungeon as a team, kill the monsters, and the player with the most treasure wins? That’s EVERY dungeon crawl ever. Swap the werewolves and cthulhuoids out for… well, f$&%, you don’t even have to swap them out. It’s basically just playing an adventure in the f$&%ing Underdark. And the fact that you might not survive? Well, in Bloodborne, the key gimmick is that YOU CAN’T DIE. YOU KEEP COMING BACK TO LIFE! That’s why you get to keep trying until you get it right.

Now, I haven’t played the stupid game. I don’t need to drop $50 on another team-based dungeon-crawling board game wearing a Bloodborne tee shirt. So, I fully admit I could be wrong. But what I want to know is WHAT in all of that actually captures the real heart of Bloodborne? The essence of Bloodborne.

And THAT brings us around to a key concept: the difference between a game’s metaphor and it’s mechanics. And how it’s important that those things work together. But also how important it is to recognize how you can break the damned thing. So, let’s transition into discussing actually topics.

Metaphors: Not Just for Liberal Arts Majors Anymore

Now, the word metaphor comes to us from literary analysis. A metaphor is a way of describing something by citing an equivalence to something else. You might say, for example, that the Bloodborne card game is probably a piece of s$&%. Now, I’m not saying that the game is literally a turd in a box. Instead, I’m trying to say that the game is undesirable and unpleasant. Something to be avoided or disposed of. Those are things that the game and a piece of s$&% have in common. I might also be suggesting that the game was created with the same level of effort and thought as it takes to create a piece of s$&%. That’s how a metaphor works.

Metaphors are figurative language. They are used for emphasis and style. They make for fun and interesting writing and speaking. It’s far more fun to call something a “piece of s$&%” then to say “it’s probably not very good.” And it’s a far stronger statement.

But, in game design, the metaphor is something a little bit different. The metaphor refers to the skin of the game. It refers to the fluffy, story bits of the game. It refers to what the game is supposed to be about. Take, for example, the game Pandemic. The game’s metaphor is that the players are a team of experts trying to stop four different diseases from spreading across the world and killing everyone. That’s the story of the game. That’s what it’s supposed to be about. That’s what the game represents.

Now, when you play the actual game, there are all these rules. There’s a board with various spaces and various actions you can take. And there’s these little colored cubes that can be placed on different spaces. And there’s tokens you can move around and when you move your token to different spaces you can take different actions depending on the space the token is sitting on. And sometimes, you can earn other tokens and those tokens allow you to remove cubes. Those are the mechanics.

Now, what’s really interesting is that you COULD, in theory, teach someone how to play Pandemic without telling them the name of the game or what it’s actually about. I mean, imagine if the board didn’t have a map of the world and the spaces weren’t named “New York” and “Japan” or whatever. Imagine if the cubes were just called cubes, the vaccines were just called green tokens, and the characters didn’t have names and pictures and descriptions. Imagine if the actions only referred to the game mechanics. This action lets you remove cubes. This action lets you move tokens. And so on. The game would be completely abstract, but it would also be completely playable. It would work exactly the same.

Would it be as fun? Well, that’s a bit harder to say. But who cares. The point is that the mechanics and the metaphor are two completely different aspects of the game. You don’t NEED the metaphor. The metaphor is just a skin. I mean, look at games like checkers and poker. Those games don’t have any metaphor at all. They are just games that are about playing the game that they are. Here’s the rules. Play by them. The winner is the first person who wins.

What’s the Meta-FOR?

BUT…

Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I mean, it’s possible to use a microwave oven to remove fleas from your cat. And it’s possible to play FATE. But those are terrible ideas. And stripping the metaphor from a game can be just as terrible an idea. Believe it or not, there’s a reason why most games AREN’T just abstract collections of mechanics. Well, there are a few reasons.

Imagine Pandemic without the story again. Imagine just an arbitrary collection of rules about moving pawns and tokens around, placing and removing cubes, and that kind of thing. Does that seem like it would be fun? Does it seem like it would be easy? Probably not.

See, the game’s metaphor, it’s trappings, does add some things to the experience. First of all, it adds some context. And context makes the game easier to play. Without the story of four viruses sweeping across the globe, Pandemic is an arcane list of rules and procedures. Add this many cubes, move this token, do this, do that, now make a decision based on those cubes and tokens. But with the understanding that those cubes represent infected populations and those tokens represent cures and this action is researching a cure and that action is quarantining a city, the rules make some kind of sense. We can translate the arcane rules into something we can understand more easily. Even if the mechanics have no actual similarity to the things they represent. I mean, no one imagines that winning a few games of Pandemic would actually qualify someone to be work at the Center for Disease Control. But, the games rules become easier to understand in context.

That’s not all though. See, without the metaphor, the game is simply a puzzle. It’s just something to figure out in terms of itself. And some people get off on solving puzzles for its own sake. But with the metaphor, there’s also a narrative. The game tells a story. It becomes an emotionally engaging experience. Because the human brain is wired to think in terms of story and to humanize things, we get more emotionally invested in things that we can understand in terms of a story. Especially a story about people.

The thing is, everyone plays games for different reasons. Some people just want to hang out with their friends. Some people want to master challenges. Some people like the stories that games tell. Most people like games for several different reasons. The metaphor adds more ways to experience the game while also making the game more approachable.

Where Metaphors and Mechanics Collide

Now, there’s another interesting aspect to metaphors vis a vis mechanics. And this is where we start to get closer to role-playing games. Some metaphors are stronger than others. And some are so strong that they persist even if you try to remove them.

Let me give an example. Once, I played this game called Splendor. Splendor is a game about collecting colored chips using cards that let you earn chips. You collect colored chips in the right combination and you score points. Simple as that. Now, the chips are gems and the cards are gem mines. And the different gem mines produce different combinations of gems. But the thing is, the game is really simple and it could be about anything. There’s nothing inherently “gem mining” about the game. There’s no rhyme or reason to which gem mines produce what gems in what combinations and why certain combinations of gems score points. If Splendor were a video game, we’d call the gem mining angle an “excuse plot.” Kind of like how the original Super Mario Brothers isn’t about rescuing a princess. It’s just about moving the right and evading obstacles. The princess is just an excuse to make you want to move to the right.

Splendor could easily be played without any reference to gems and gem mining. And the gem mining doesn’t provide a strong narrative or story flow or pace to the game.

Now, compare that to Pandemic. You COULD remove the story about diseases from Pandemic. But even if you did, playing the game would still have a certain feel to it. The mechanics create this spreading dread. And sudden surprise outbreaks. And the player actions are all about containment, control, and mitigation. If you played Pandemic without the story, you’d still probably have a sense that you were fighting to contain a growing something before it gets too big to contain.

And THAT is what happens when the mechanics and the metaphor mesh. If you take the story away, if you could still make some vague guesses about what kind of story the game is trying to tell, the mechanics and the story are supporting each other. And if you want to know how well meshed the mechanics and the metaphor are, there’s an easy way to tell. Just ask yourself, how easy would it be to teach someone this game WITHOUT referring to anything except raw game mechanics. If you don’t think you could easily teach the game without names and proper nouns and references to the story of the game, the game’s metaphor and mechanics are supporting each other.

Splendor doesn’t need the gems. Codenames doesn’t need the spies. Pandemic needs the disease. See what I mean?

Metaphorical Role-Playing Games

So, how does all of this apply to role-playing games? Well, role-playing games are, on their surface, really tied to their metaphors. Because of the basic nature of role-playing games, it’d be very difficult to play one without the fictional game world. Imagine trying to play an adventure of any role-playing game as an abstract exercise in mechanics. How could you even begin? I mean, you MIGHT be able to get away with combat in a highly mechanical system as a chess game. A combat in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons could be boiled down to an abstract exercise in moving tokens around and exercising meaningless actions. A pushing attack might be expressed as “target a token adjacent to your token and resolve a dice contest. If successful, the target token loses five points and can be moved one square in a away from the attacking token.” But even then, you’d still lose the chance to do anything that isn’t mechanically prescribed in the game. That is, no player could attempt something creative like swinging from a chandelier.

Role-playing games need the fiction. Without context, the mechanics are not only meaningless, they are almost impossible to use. Mostly.

Once upon a time, I ran a three-month campaign using the Torchbearer rules. Torchbearer is a system based on the Burning Wheel system. To be fair, it’s the only Burning Wheel game I’ve ever played. And based on that experience, it’s the only Burning Wheel game I’ll probably ever willingly play. What killed me was what they called the “conflict resolution system.” Basically, whenever the players ended up in a conflict with anything, be it a combat, an argument, or whatever, there was a very mechanical process for resolving the whole thing.

First, the GM would fit the conflict into a specific category. And then a conflict captain would be chosen by the players. The players and the GM choose specific categories of actions like maneuver, attack, and defend. Actually, the conflict captain assigns specific maneuvers to specific players. The actions are resolved using rock-paper-scissor comparisons (maneuver beats attack or whatever) and dice rolling. That happens over and over several times. And after things are resolved, the players and the GM decide what the f$&% actually happened in the world based on all the die rolling and mechanics.

One of the players, after our third session, described Torchbearer as a very well designed system for simulating a game of Torchbearer. And that about sums up my feelings too. You could literally skip the part where you describe what happens in the fictional world and conflicts would play out almost EXACTLY THE SAME. Now, I’m not saying that’s bad. Except that it is. It’s terrible. I understand some people might like that kind of thing. But some people also like orange shag carpeting. Those people are wrong.

The point is, every so often, you find a specific subset of mechanics inside an RPG – or sometimes an entire goddamned game system – that really doesn’t represent anything except itself. The connection between the mechanics and the metaphor are so weak, you can rip one from the other without changing the game at all. And I would argue that, while that sort of s$&% is okay for crappy board games about gathering colored tokens, it’s basically a failure in a role-playing game.

Look, a role-playing game is basically about adopting a role in a fictional universe, making decisions, and dealing with the consequences. The core engagement of every role-playing game IS the fictional universe. If the fictional universe can be pulled out of the RPG too easily, that means the mechanics aren’t really fully supporting the core engagement of the game.

But I’m getting off topic. Because there’s an important lesson about rule design and rule hacking.

The Strength of the Metaphor

Let’s take D&D 5E as an example. Let’s look at a couple of mechanics. First of all, let’s look at the core mechanic of the game. The action resolution mechanic. When a player attempts an action, the player rolls a d20. To the result, the player adds an ability score modifier based on the action attempted. In addition, if the player has training in a specific area that pertains to the action attempted, they get to add their proficiency bonus. That’s the most basic rule in D&D 5E, right?

Notice that it’s almost impossible to take that action out of the game world. Without a reference to the fictional world, it’d be impossible to assign it to a particular ability score. Further, it would be impossible to determine if the character has pertinent training without understanding the fictional action being undertaken. That mechanic is inherently wrapped up in the fictional world. Makes sense, right?

But, by the same token, that mechanic actually ISN’T wrapped up in the specific world of D&D, is it? That basic action resolution mechanic could easily be moved to a game about spies in World War II. Or space marines fighting arachnids on Planet Heinlein. Or Star Wars characters fighting Klingons in the TARDIS. Oh sure, the skill list itself is clearly that of a preindustrial world filled with magic. But the mechanic itself could work for any world.

Now take a look at the magic system for wizards. That thing with spell slots and specific spells and all of that crap. That IS very specific to the D&D world. There are a bunch of assumptions about how magic works inherent in that system. It wouldn’t make much sense in Star Wars, even though Star Wars also has magic and Star Wars Jedi can do many of the same things that D&D wizards can do. More to the point, imagine if you started playing a Star Wars or Superheroes game and the mechanics for using Jedi powers or super powers was the D&D spellcasting system. If you had any experience with D&D at all, you’d probably argue that the game “feels like D&D.” The magic system of D&D 5E (and 3E and 2E and 1E) is very tightly married to the D&D world. And that’s why Pathfinder feels like D&D. Because, mechanically, it IS D&D.

Now, take the inspiration mechanic. If you’re not familiar with that, basically it works like this: you write down a personality trait. When you take an action that pertains to a specific personality trait, you earn inspiration. You can then spend that inspiration whenever you want to get a bonus on any die roll you want. The funny thing is that that mechanic is actually really abstract. You could use it without any reference to the game fiction at all. Seriously.

When you choose a “personality trait,” what you’re really choosing is a particular behavior or action or condition you promise to take. Now, yes, it should be a personality trait. But there’s nothing that says the trait can’t be entirely mechanical. Consider a trait like “I always want to keep all the gold for myself.” That’s a perfectly valid trait, right? But that could also be translated as “whenever you gain this specific arbitrary resource, you gain inspiration.” And because inspiration can be spent on any action whatsoever and provides a purely mechanical bonus, there doesn’t need to be any connection between the fictional action and the use of inspiration. And THAT is why some people – like ME – complain that inspiration is an arbitrary, tacked on mechanic. It is just “specify a condition, fulfil the condition, get a free bonus.” And if you had one player at a table who used inspiration in that totally arbitrary way, it wouldn’t even be noticeable. It wouldn’t change the way the game played out for anyone.

The strongest mechanics in an RPG are the mechanics that literally can’t describe anything other than the world they are describing. The ones that would feel like that game even if you tried to take them out of the game. Those are the things that give the game a unique feel. The weakest mechanics are the ones that you could use without any reference to the fiction of the game at all, let alone a specific world.

When designing a game mechanic, the goal should be for the mechanic to be as closely tied to whatever it represents as possible. It should be hard to use the mechanic for anything other than what its meant to do. I’ll give you another for example.

For example, my girlfriend recently got involved in a Pathfinder game online. And she decided to play one of those thousand non-core classes that have appeared like f$&%ing kudzu across the thousand splatbooks that are choking Pathfinder to death. I think it was the swashbuckler. And the swashbuckler is one of those classes that is centered around a very specific fighting style gimmick. Pathfinder LOVES that s$&%. And the mechanic at the core of the swashbuckler is also something Pathfinder loves: the spell-point system. Basically, you take certain actions to earn you points. In this case: critical hits and killing blows earn you points. You can then spend those points to do other moves. Like getting bonus on climb checks. So, you deal a critical hit to an enemy (a random event, I might add), and in return, sometime during the day you can arbitrarily decide to add 1d6 to a climb check.

The thing is, there’s nothing about that mechanic that’s inherently swashbuckly. It’s just earning points for some outcomes and spending them on other outcomes. The same mechanic could work equally well for a warmage or cleric of battle or blood warlock something. In fact, it’s actually kind of weird that a swashbuckler has an internal “battery” that gets charged up by killing blows that makes them more acrobatic. If, instead, the swashbuckler earned bonuses to swordplay based on taking certain actions or risks in the moment or got inherent bonuses to swashbuckly actions without a weird point-charging mechanic or whatever, that would be a mechanic that always felt swashbuckly. The only thing about this mechanic that actually feels swashbuckly is the names of the powers and effects. And do you know how I know? Because there’s a whole bunch of Pathfinder classes that follow the “earn points for action X, spend points to do actions Y, Z, or AA” model. You just file of the names, change some of the specifics, and a swashbuckler becomes a gunslinger or alchemist or whatever bulls$&% class I’m trying to come up with for the gimmick of the week.

There’s an art to building mechanics that can’t easily be divorced from their metaphor. When you make a mechanic, ask yourself “if I change the names and descriptors in this mechanic, could it describe anything else?” If the answer is yes, you have a mechanic that isn’t working with it’s metaphor to best effect. Probably. Because that brings me around to…

Morphing Metaphors

Let’s talk about Pandemic again. Sorry. Look, it’s not like my favorite board game or anything. It’s just a good board game that really exemplifies mechanics and metaphor going hand in hand. But it also exemplifies something else. See, there’s this other Pandemic game out there. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. And, here’s the thing, it isn’t about curbing the spread of a plague. Instead, it’s about these weird alien demons. And what’s happening is portals are opening up around the landscape. And demons are spreading from the portals into our world. And a group of investigators have to contain and mitigate the demons while attempting to devise ways to close the portals so the demons stop spreading.

Basically, instead of diseases, you have demons. Instead of containing the diseases, you hold off the demons. Instead of curing the diseases, you close the portals. And instead of the world succumbing to the plague, the world is overrun by demons. It’s the same basic game with pretty much all of the same mechanics. But the metaphor is different.

Now, that might seem to undermine my whole f$&%ing argument about how Pandemic is an example of metaphor and mechanics working together, right? Except it doesn’t. Because the metaphor is only different in the surface details. That’s the thing. They are both about sudden outbreaks and attempting to contain a rapidly spreading force before the world is too far gone. They are both about control and containment to buy time to find permanent solutions. The fact is, fighting global epidemics and fighting demons from hell portals? Those are the same story with different details.

And THAT’S important to understand. The mechanics of Pandemic create a certain type of experience. That experience can come with a bunch of different skins. See, the metaphor is more than skin deep. The metaphor isn’t just about the details of the story. It’s how the story feels. It’s how the game feels.

You could use the rules of Pandemic to play all sorts of things. For example, I could imagine Pandemic: Zombie Apocalypse. The players are world governments trying to contain outbreaks of undead while they struggle to find a cure, before too many cities are overrun by the zombie plague. I could imagine Pandemic: Insurgence, where the players are government intelligence agents trying to quell civil unrest as it spreads across a nation while trying to locate and eliminate the leaders of insurgent groups driving the unrest. I could even imagine a Pandemic: Underdark game wherein the players are adventurers trying to contain invasions of drow, aberrants, duergar, and other monsters from the Underdark as they pour up to the surface from sinkholes appearing across Faerun. But what I couldn’t – and SHOULDN’T – imagine is a Pandemic game about dungeon crawling. Or about being a supervillain bent on world domination. See the difference?

And THAT is where I have my doubts about the Bloodborne card game. It’s metaphor SEEMS TO BE all about the surface trappings. You explore dungeons and fight monsters. You collect blood and relics. The setting is the city of Yarnham, the Victorian city of the Healing Church featured in the game (and the catacombs underneath Yarnham). And the monsters are werewolves and Cthulhuoids. But that’s surface crap. That’s not the themes and engagements I’m after from Bloodborne. That’s a dungeon crawler like any other dungeon crawler.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

And now we get down to the point of all of this crap. See, if you understand that the metaphor for any specific mechanic runs deeper than just the surface details and if you understand how different mechanics in role-playing games work with their metaphors, that gives you a powerful tool for creating new mechanics.

See, GMs love to talk about reskinning. Want to make a new monster? Just change the surface details on an existing monster. Want a new spell? Just change the name and description of an existing spell. But reskinning can be done carelessly or carefully. Because before you reskin anything, you really need to drill down to the themes of the thing and not just look at surface effects.

See, I’m working on a secret project right now. And I’ll talk more about it in future articles. This article is just laying a conceptual groundwork for some of the things I’m working on. For right now, I’m going to be a little vague in my examples. But they should at least show the power of understanding metaphors.

First of all, I have these creatures. They are humans that become possessed by demons. Eventually, the demon consumes their soul, leaving the human a mindless, savage killing machine that despises all living things. Basically, just a murder-bot. A vicious, unrelenting murder-bot. And I needed to do a couple of things. I needed to stat up some basic possessed human murder-bot beings. And I needed some mechanics for the whole possession thing.

Now, a smart GM and a smart game designer tries to avoid reinventing the wheel whenever they can. And I’m no exception. So, when I needed to design some traits and attacks for my murder-bots, I started by looking through my Monster Manual to see what mechanics I could lift. Now, on the surface, a creature that has its soul removed and becomes a murderous, unrelenting husk of flesh SEEMS like it should be easy. Just check out zombies and skeletons, right? That’s the very textbook definition of undeath.

But no. See, it isn’t the soulless nature of the husk of flesh that is really important to me. It’s the vicious, savage, unrelenting murder. So, when it came time to start looking at mechanics, I wasn’t looking at zombies. I was looking at orcs, gnolls, and sahuagin. I don’t want shambling hordes of creeping death. I wanted sharks. I wanted piranha. I wanted murder frenzy. The fact that the possessed husks are formed like zombies is irrelevant. That’s a surface detail. The real metaphor is how they need to FEEL. Vicious, savage monsters. Not shambling walls of rotten flesh. See what I mean?

As for the possession mechanic? Well, I COULD look at enchantment spells or spells like trap the soul or domination. Possession is just mind control, right? But look again. The idea is that a demon gets inside your brain or soul. It gradually turns you into a rage monster while it battles for your soul. Eventually, it defeats your soul and you are left a murderous inhuman husk. Now that part? That DOES sound like zombies. In fact, that sounds like zombie disease. Or, alternatively, it sounds like drug addiction. It’s a disease in that you catch it, you try to fight it off, but if it advances too far, you succumb. Otherwise, eventually, you’re cured. It’s a drug addiction in that you crave murder. And the more you give in to the murder, the more you need to murder. If you try not to murder, you suffer terribly. And eventually, all you are is a hollow shell chasing that next murder. There’s nothing left of you in there.

The lesson here – because the specific creatures and mechanics for this project aren’t ready for prime time yet – the lesson is this: first, understand that good rules are good because they go hand in hand with the story they represent. Always try to design mechanics that fit the metaphor to such a degree that they couldn’t really be about anything other than that metaphor. Second, understand that the metaphor isn’t about names and surface details, it’s about themes and feel and engagement. Third, don’t reinvent the wheel. If there’s a mechanic out that fits the deep metaphor you’re going for, just reskin that s$&%. And fourth, never expect a licensed board game to be anything other than a shallow attempt to cash in on name recognition. Oh sure, sometimes the licensed board game actually turns out to capture the spirit of the license (Battlestar Galactica, I’m looking at you, too bad you’re out of print). But usually, they are just another board game wearing a fan tee shirt.

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14 thoughts on “Metaphor: What’s the Meta-FOR?

  1. Great article, as usual. There are many “cash-grab” board games ou there (I’m looking at you, SpongeBob Monopoly), where the skin (or as you called – more accurately, I’m sure – the Metaphor) is completely dissociated from the rules.

    As usual, you’ve helped me by expanding my gaming vocabulary. When I’m homebrewing my monsters and rules subsistems, I will start by thinking if there is not some system out there that string the same chords that I’m trying to play.

  2. This is a very important game design lesson; i’m just wandering about the story of D&D through various editions. In the early editions the chance to miss an attack and the more mundane flavor of abilities take the metaphor better then the heroic visions embraced in 4th and 5th edition. I have a lot of powers and stuff in those games but i roll a d20, a miss happens, a turn is lost forever, adding nothing to the experience. it felt exactly how it was to miss an attack in the 90 era, with the difference that now the heroic theme and rules slowed the game and remove the thrill of deadly combat.

    I think that if they want to make a game feels like modern mmo or heroic fantasy, some sacred cow of the old times should gone forever. Different metaphors need different mechanics.

  3. Great article! I’m toying with creating a board game for the hell of it and this article crystallized some of my thoughts on actions for the game.

  4. I love this article because I have recently been trying to create a fast creature, like a Quickling. All the usual methods of speeding up an enemy, like dash as bonus actions, just wasn’t producing the feeling that I was trying to accomplish of a uniquely quick entity.

    I came up with…
    Quickling: whenever a quickling rolls for initiative, it rolls twice. A quickling takes a turn on both results in the initiative order.

    It’s a simple mechanic that I hope produces the feelings of fast enemies to my players.

  5. Interesting stuff! I could’ve used another 10 or so paragraphs at the end, with more on re-skinning monsters well, hah. That really caught my interest.

    On another note, my friends and I do quite enjoy the Bloodborne card game. Yes, it’s just a cooperative dungeon-crawler with Bloodborne graphics smacked onto it. But the actual game-play is really fun and would definitely be enjoyable even without wearing Bloodborne-skin.

  6. The (not at all) funny thing is D&D is the game system that single handedly destroyed most of the tightly bound system/setting games in favor of D20 rules…..

  7. I wish I could see an honest face-to-face discussion between my two favorites GM-helping people, Angry and Adam Koebel (@skinnyghost) about the design of Torchbearer. I feel like it would be really interesting 🙂

    • What you have to give to Torchbearer is that their marketing works. I read through the book and thought I have a game in my hand that emulates old-school D&D like it used to be played. Where losing turns was losing resources and so on. But there are so many parts and pieces like the “let’s negotiate about the outcome” combat system that just don’t fit.

      Old D&D had player characters take risks for riches, but it wasn’t a death spiral. You did not have to make yourself lose ties just to make camp or heal your wounds later. And you did not have to roll if a city shop would actually sell you candles for a price you could afford.

      But I did not notice this disparity at first when reading it. The marketing works. But when I got to play Mouse Guard I started to notice that the game actually prevented players from doing what they were trying to do. Outside guard missions you suddenly have to collect your notches or whatever to do your own stuff. Why? Nobody knows. Because it’s apparently great game design to make players consider losing ties more often. You get something in the future for it – something, if you think of it, has been taken away from you in the first place. In other games you can sidetrack a bit in your adventures because you’re in charge. Mouse Guard (and by extension its re-skin Torchbearer) takes choice away from you, holds it hostage, and gives it back to you if you behave as the good game designer wanted. It is appropriately themed with rodents because it teaches you like a lab rat to push the right buttons to keep playing and then it tells you it’s a game about beliefs… It’s a game about the belief that the game designer’s will is a paramount.

      So, in Torchbearer exactly one mechanic pays true homage to olden D&D: The fact that risk goes up if you dawdle and your resources dwindle. But nothing else does… It takes away the possibility to shop and rest freely in town, or to even have a town adventure which conflicts with idea of the rules. Because adventuring in town would not take you away from sources of food and light and not make you sad and dead. The game redirects you away from beating the baddy and instead steal his or her piggy bank because else you cannot survive the shopping death spiral. I mean, people did focus on capturing treasures because they got you XP, but that was playing the game for the rules. That wasn’t necessarily the fun part.

      It’s as if the fun part had been taken away and replaced by a grind, a slog. Roleplaying games often allow escapist fantasies of heroism or risk-taking. Burning Wheel Games are like working their day job is for most people. You have a row after every meeting (conflict) and if you have a snack and a coffee it seems bearable, maybe. Except you pay to do it. It’s a bit like the nega-dungeon idea proffered by adherents of Fermentations of the Lame Princess. That you come together so that the GM can make you feel miserable about having had the idea to start a game. Right…

      So, Torchbearer does not bring back the feel of the old play style. It’s a clever marketing stick to say so. In reality it seems to be a game for people who like to suffer for character creation choices they make, for rolling dice badly, and for GMs who would basically like to have every difficulty calculated for them by the game designer. Let the dice roll and let us make arbitrary decisions like when to attack and when to defend and live by these outcomes as if they had any meaning when we don’t have any info on what the enemy is doing. You press the attack if you see an advantage or an opening or feel the enemy is wavering in their resolve. Torchbearer seems to think you have no brains at all but live by the random choices you made before even getting into combat. I’m not even sure it qualifies as a combat system because it discourages tactics or understanding your situation beyond which skills are your highest ones on the sheet (so you get to roll those).

      D&D didn’t always do what it said on the back of the book or box. But it always was a fun game to me. I don’t know what Torchbearer is, but I have rarely been so disappointed after buying the hype.

  8. This is why it bugs the hell out of me that people hold up GUMSHOE games (Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, etc.) as the perfect investigative game system. The thing is that the real mechanics, as opposed to the GMing advice, have nothing to do with investigation. They’re just a spotlight-sharing mechanism for otherwise freeform play. They could be applied to anything, if you like the idea that a spotlight hog will run out of juice eventually.

  9. Hey Angry,

    I’m a big BIG fan, I really love your articles and your writing style and all the things you bring to us, the community.

    I’m also a professional game designer (and I learned a lot from you and apply a lot of things from your articles in my work).

    I just want to add in a few definitions to maybe contribute with something.

    When you say this: “See, without the metaphor, the game is simply a puzzle.” AFAIK you’re not using the Game Theory definition for “puzzle”. Puzzle is any sequence of “make believe” obstacles involving only one agent. And a game is any form of play involving at least two agents with conflicting (direct or indirect) interests.

    As you said in the article itself, chess is a ‘game without metaphor’, but it’s not simply a puzzle. It’s a full game.

    There’s this traditional framework to understanding game design called MDA framework, which stands for Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics. This article is about Aesthetics (which is kind of the formal name for “metaphor” in game design) and there are a lot of points to be made regarding Aesthetics and it’s importance, but a game can still be a game without Aesthetics (for example, poker, and the majority of traditional card games).

    I agree with the article in general and I learned a lot from it, and I hope I can contribute to some degree with those infos.

    Cheers!

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