Learning in Games

I write roleplaying games when I get bored. Right now I’m working on one called Sufficiently Advanced; it’s a sci-fi game. I want to talk about how people learn it, because it’s not about learning the rules system. It’s about learning the setting, and it’s a very different sort of learning.

For those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, you can check out the wikipedia entry (which is accurate but bland) or this essay by Monte Cook, or any number of “what is roleplaying?” sections in nearly any RPG.

One can broadly split the content of any game book into “system” and “setting.” The setting is the atlas/story/travelogue that describes the game world. The system describes how your characters are defined and how they interact with each other and the world. In the best games these two things support each other – things that are described as being possible in the setting are supported mechanically in the system, and things your character can do with the system are described appropriately in the setting.

One learns most RPGs by reading the book, playing some, reading the book, playing some more, etc. Some folks are happy learning by the seat of their pants and playing first; others want to know the system in great detail before even creating their characters. Inherent in that statement is the idea that “learning” means “learning the system.” How do I roll the dice? How do I spend points to create my character? How do I make it so my character casts a spell or makes the jump to lightspeed? All of those are mechanical questions, part of the game system.

Sufficiently Advanced is a little different. The system is very simple; it deals with the outcome of a conflict, not the details, and it does so quickly. The setting in SA, however, is extensive. The game examines technology in many forms, used for a myriad of purposes, in different ways, by over a dozen civilizations. What your character can or cannot do is shaped far more extensively by the game’s setting than by its system.

Sudden flash of comprehension: SA is almost the opposite of chess. The system in chess is everything; the setting is merely painting. You could play it with coins instead of nicely carved pieces. Knowledge of the supposed setting is almost harmful. In SA the setting is king – changes in the system are not nearly as big a deal as changes in the setting. Knowing the system isn’t harmful, but relying on it for everything is. 

I won’t claim that SA has the same depth as chess, but its setting take a lot of work to master, and that mastery pays off in spades. You can see this as players become more familiar with the game. As they become more familiar with future technology and what sorts of things are possible in the setting, they take advantage of it more and more. Meanwhile, there’s not much mechanical mastery to be had. You can’t really build a character that breaks the system, and it’s genuinely hard to build a useless character. You can’t take advantage of loopholes and exploits in the system – you have to find them in the game world. Mastery of the setting is rewarded.

To tie this back into subject-based learning (because I could easily talk about this all day), consider science. I can learn the “setting” of science – current events, historical information, interconnections between fields, personalities, etc. I can also learn the “system” of science – best practices, scientific writing, underlying mathematics, etc. The latter lets me do science, the former lets me appreciate it.

If I want to really understand, both the system and the setting are necessary.

In some fields these may be a little more closely connected, but even in English one can easily separate the technical aspects of the field (grammar, spelling, language change over time) from the context (various authors and their books, historical perspectives). 

I’m not directly going anywhere with this at the moment; I just wanted to bring up some interesting comparisons and parallels. Comments welcome.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on August 30, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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