What the hell does that mean? It was actually a concept I came into contact with as an Industrial Designer. Donald A Norman speaks of affordances in connection to objects. Do I understand how to use the object? My thesis is that affordances can also be applied to stories or perhaps settings in role-playing games, although the concept turns slightly hazy after trying to do so.
An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling. The term is used in a variety of fields: perceptual psychology, cognitive psychology, environmental psychology, industrial design, human–computer interaction (HCI), interaction design, instructional design and artificial intelligence.
Different definitions of affordance that have developed are explained in the following sections. The original definition described all action possibilities that are physically possible. This was then refined to describe action possibilities of which an actor is aware. The term has further evolved for use in the context of HCI as indicating the easy discoverability of possible actions.
Have you ever read a role-playing game and gone “yeah, this setting is awesome”, but when you try to write for it, there are simply no ideas? Ever since I started my 20.000-characters project (which is by the way celebrating 46 adventures), I’ve come across this peculiarity at increasing intervals. Some RPGs are simply not possible (or very difficult) to write adventures for.
To be honest, some games are not even built to work without intimate player participation (meaning it’s not just the GM sitting down creating the story) such as Burning Empires, but those are not the types of games I’m talking about. I’m talking about regular, “run of the mill” games such as Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS and Traveller* – those kinds of games.
I’ll give you an example that has vexed me quite a bit, as well as an example that practically flew off the page. Both role-playing games are from the same studio, which goes to show you never can tell.
Sputtering to a halt
I bought Amaranthine in one of my fits of “I must own every role-playing game in the WORLD”. It also seemed like a really nice setting – which it is – but I’ve been hard pressed to find an adventure for this very elegant game of past and present lives.**
I think one of the reasons why I’m having such a hard time finding a subject is because the world is sort of closed down and complete. I also can’t wrap my head around the conflicts of the world. There are very few openings into which I can insert a narrative of my own. The structure of the game looks good on the surface, but fails slightly when answering my perpetual question “what does the player do?” If there isn’t a clear mission for the player characters, it is quite dicey to create obstacles for them to overcome as well.
Conflicts are obstacles solvable by using a certain skill the character has. That’s where the gameplay is at.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since I first started playing because it actually does inform my choice of games, as far as which games I choose to play. I’d still buy them due to the “all the RPGs in the WORLD”-thing. A game where the player character has a clear goal, and the game master knows where the conflict lies is a game where I can really go to town. So the advice*** I’d give is the following:
• Imagine that you pick up the game, you read it and you understand player character goals in the game
• Imagine a conflict in the game. What would stand in the way of the character to progress? How would these obstacles be solved or defeated? What are the success criteria? What are the fail criteria?
• Imagine how the player plays it – details aren’t needed, but actions are. What can the player do to solve the problem? What tools does the player have – what are the affordances of the game?
This is not really getting at the issue, however, because there are games out there that have answered the above questions but still lack the openings for narratives. There simply are no story hooks. (And now I’ve left Amaranthine behind) So just as important is to allow for openings for the player characters. This is a bit trickier to give advice about.
• Can you summarize the setting/ world in a few sentences? I can’t with Amaranthine, but I can with Maschine Zeit.
• Does the conflicts of the world seem clear? And this doesn’t necessarily mean that the world has to be simple. In Star Trek the summary would be to discover new life and new civilisations. This means that the conflicts will most likely arise with the Federation or with the new life. Which it is.
• Is the setting familiar and easy to grasp? In other words, do you have a reference? Using the example of Star Trek, I don’t think it would have been understandable to such a high degree unless there hadn’t been a TV-series to fall back on.
When it flows
The second game from Machine Age Productions is Maschine Zeit. A game set in the future and in space where the conflict is obvious. There are ghosts and valuable materials on space stations. The material is highly sought after and the ghosts are concentrated around the areas that are rich with it. The characters are of course the ones who have to go and get the stuff for the corporations, investigate the ghost activities etc. Basically what it is is Event Horizon, but with less religious overtones. It does however have several nasty ghosts hanging around to kick ass though.
What Maschine Zeit has (apart from a neat and sleek rules system) is the following:
• Clear goals – get the money, get the mineral, survive
• Clear obstacles/ conflicts – space, angry ghosts
• An easy relatable to world – ghosts in space
The level of complexity in the backstory of Maschine Zeit is also smaller than the level of complexity in Amaranthine. But it is also easier to relate to.
It may also be that I can identify the type of story told in Maschine Zeit much easier than the story told in Amaranthine. It may also be that the story is easier to place outside of the player character than in Amaranthine. Amaranthine, after all, depends and circles around the characters and when a story is internal, all an adventure writer can do is supply the initial “sparking” event, the rest is more or less up to the players.
Maschine Zeit also sparks the imagination very well with the “ghosts on a space station” setting. It brings together two unrelated subjects and creates something new. The texts are also written in an open ended fashion and the enemies have immediate motivations for getting the characters to leave.
Other examples of accessible and story affording(?) role-playing games:
• Mouse Guard
• the Gumshoe games
• World of Darkness
As a closing point, I think I’m going to have to work on my theory a bit more and do a proper analysis of what works/ what doesn’t, but I still think there’s something to it.
* Which are, ironically, none of them suffering from this issue
** This said, Amaranthine might work excellent for you. It might just be me with a lack of imagination showing, but I don’t think so.
*** I want to point out that I respect the heck out of Machine Age productions, and this advice thing? There are those who need it a lot more 🙂