I Wish for More Wishes : The Value of Limited Choices

To a writer/creator, there is nothing more uncreative than someone who believes they are being creative. “I wish for more wishes. See. I’m thinking outside the box.”

Sadly, I have news for you. You are an idiot.

Okay. You’re not an idiot. But you’re not Stephen Hawkings, either.

You’re not the first guy to rule lawyer wishes. In fact, until you actually rule lawyer something completely and utterly new, rule lawyering itself is thinking INSIDE the box, not outside of it. Gaming the game is not the creative endeavor you think it is. To help make my point, I want to illustrate the value of choosing between two crappy options and how that is more useful/beneficial to gameplay and game design.

First. Let me assure you that the philosophy of “games must have decisions” is not mine alone. But, for my design philosophy it is the MOST IMPORTANT ingredient. You do not have to agree with me that it’s the most important, but you do have to agree that it’s an ingredient of design. Chutes and ladders is not a game.

Second. I am using real examples of decisions and interactions with people. I am mocking you for entertainment value. I don’t think you’re an idiot. Except Ross Isaacs.

Third. Rule lawyering is to right-brain dominant writers and designers, what font discussions are to left-brain dominant asperger sufferers. [Ha. Just busting your balls.]

Let us imagine you are presented with the option to pick between two awful things. The concept of the hypothetical could be anything. [The game Zobmondo (Would you rather?) is an excellent playground for this experiment. If you have a copy, go get it. If you don’t. No worries, I’m going to make one up for you anyway. I just think it’s a great game.]

“Would you rather sleep with Screeh or Erkel?” is a favorite question of mine, especially when engaging people who’ve never played and/or are stuck on a road trip with me. These choices are awful. No one who values his/her body wants to sleep with either of these two kings of the nerds. To make matters worse, they have awful voices, bad clothing, giant shoes, maybe even halitosis. So even if “brains are hot,” these two fail nearly every litmus test.

But, the question is clear. Would you rather sleep with A or B. The question does not offer the choice to sleep with both. It does not offer the option to shoot yourself, make kindling out one, to cook the other, and so on. The value of the question isn’t even that you have one option or another. Hell. Pretend they are Sean Connery and Steve McQueen. I don’t care.

The point of having two limited options is to explore why you picked one over another and what we can learn about our decision-making trees. Why this one? And not that one? What do we gain/lose through this exercise?

If I asked you to shoot the president of your housing association or I’m going to kill 200 puppies, you are still faced with a horrible choice to make, but this choice has more drama. You begin to weigh the value of saving puppies over a guy you may not like, but is still a living person. Does he know someone you do like? Are the puppies destined to be rescue dogs that will help someone? The option to build a rocket ship and go to the moon to avoid this decision is “not creative.” You probably think you’re being creative, but you’re actually just avoiding the exercise, and ultimately breaking the social contract.

Don’t you think we all want to have the luxury of going to the moon? Do you seriously think you’ve outsmarted anyone, Ross?

Why decisions matter, i.e where is this going?

I’m going to show the value of limited choices across many game design models. Join me, won’t you? [See you can choose to read on, or watch porn. Both great choices.]

Board Games

Board games operate on very specific rule systems (usually), with objects of play, victory conditions, and turn orders. It is not creative to skip someone’s turn to win. It is creative to find ways to limit their options within the scope of the rules.

Flipping a game board over does not mean you win. Making someone else flip the board does.Good board games have a number of choices, albeit not too many as modern board game players are getting more and more particular. But a good board game has numerous paths to victory. [Mean example of successful game with limited options deleted.]

A board game has a beginning, middle, and end. The tide of play is actually measurable as the scope of play shifts. Some designs involve meaningful choice and some are about escalating power, so the choice isn’t a choice at all. “Uh. Do I want the 10 points or the 11 points? Uh….” Go and Chess are games with immediate and valuable decisions. Talisman is a game for people who eat paste. In any case, all these games have tides of play that shift and these tides of play affect decisions.

[If I was trying to sell you on my recent board game design, I would use it at as example, but I don’t see a penny of royalties on, so I don’t care.]

Card games and abstract games follow similar models with varying degrees of complexity. A CCG could have as many as 5,000 rules (each card being a rule) with interlocking options and paths to victory. The amount of complexity involved and the cost to know “all the rules” is so prohibitive that this design model really doesn’t work any longer. But it once did. And the choices involved we difficult. “Crap. 60 cards. But I want all of these awesome rare moxes. Damn. There’s no room in my deck for ALL OF IT.” For CCGs, designing your deck was a game in and of itself. The term strategy was bandied about to describe deck-building, while the term tactics defined how you played your deck against you opponent.

Seriously. If they didn’t have 5000 cards and cost $150 a month to keep on top of, CCGs would be among the best game models for discussing limited choices. Heck. I still be competitive in at least one of them.

The infamous story of the magic the gathering player who tore up his chaos orb into confetti is an example of absolutely brilliant out of the box creativity. Except. By tearing up his card, he violated another rule of the game (minimum 60 card deck) and lost the game soon afterwards for this rules violation. He could have weaseled his way out of it, maybe, but it would have denigrated the value of his decision. And ultimately, the DCI judge on-hand would have said, confetti is not a card. I’m sorry.

Roleplaying Games

Which brings me to my favorite of all game design models, and the one that is the hardest to put a finger on: roleplaying games. Roleplaying games, early on, were nothing more than board games with “fuzzy edges.” You had a short list of options you could perform, on a grid, with models, but with different “win conditions” for each scenario. Rescue the princess? Kill the orcs? Retrieve the scepter? Stop the summoning ritual? Abate the thing that is happening that you don’t like. Regardless of how many ideas you generate, all roleplaying game plots involved the idea, “We don’t like what they are doing and it needs to stop.” Heck. It didn’t even need to have a moral element. It could have been something as mundane as “burn down their construction site” and bring me back a smoothie.

The decision-tree involved in these kinds of games was never, “are we going to use the map to get the wizard the dagger?” It was always, how are we going to sneak past these guards, because that dagger is inside.

Bear in mind, I am not judging this game model. I am merely breaking down its parameters and limitations.

Modern roleplaying games have moved away from these limitations and have become more than the sum of their parts. And as a result, they are the most bendable and important of all game design models because there are human-beings on every end of the game making decisions. Sometimes with lasting results. A good roleplaying game story doesn’t ask the players to choose between killing and not killing the guards to get to the dagger inside, but rather present a list of options that all have consequences.


That dirty dirty dirty word. To some, gaming is a distraction. A social endeavor to get away from the wife and kids boss and all those other responsibilities. And good for you. No judgement. You’ll not like this part of the article, I’m sorry.

Thorough gamemasters design complex worlds with intricate storylines and intersecting values. Giving out magic items and power that circumnavigate “choice” are not fun for someone who has spent 100 hours designing the city of Punjar*. Players who want to kill bigger things are always mad that the GM has been so frugal with the treasure. But the GM can’t possible calculate all the decision vectors that emanate from giving out a ring of +1 fire resistance. Because eventually some jackass is going to figure out how to turn it into a weapon. And once that happens, the ring replaces choice. It replaces thinking.

And when that happens, its not a game anymore.

When winning replaces decision-making, you’re not roleplaying anymore. You’re playing one of the games listed above. And the gamemaster wants it to remain a game as long as possible because once it’s a board game, it’s out of his control.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

We’re all sitting down to play the world’s most popular fantasy game. I am the gamemaster. Ross hasn’t been invited and we’re having a great time. Eventually, two plot threads emerge at the same time. The players can choose between saving the pacifistic goblins who the locals consider a threat (and are about to burn alive inside their cave). OR. They can race across the valley to save the farm of a guy who is cruel to his children and wife, but who has the largest most productive farm in the valley. Both plots have long-term pros and cons. The decisions are limited, but the VALUE of those decisions are immense. Now, this is a roleplaying game, and the players can always choose any of a dozen other things to do at this point in time, but events have culminated and for sake of argument let’s pretend in tonight’s session the debate arose of which of these things to do.

Thirty minute in, Ross shows up with his character, unannounced, and he says, “I give the goblins four healing potions, a ring of invisibility, and the wand of fireballs that we got in the Tomb of Needanamey. Okay. Let’s go save us a farmer.” Ross is convinced his decision-making is “awesome.” He solved both problems. And in the process, he ended the session on a flat, non-suspenseful conclusion. Both stories have been neutered the storylines and the PC get their XP. This all could have been done in World of Warcraft.

Had Ross had a ring of wishes, how much more boring would the conclusion of this story been?

(Side note, I ran this campaign for some people once and a player actually turned to the NPC dying of consumption and said, “We’ll be back when we make another level. We can’t help you now.”)

Apocalypse World

Vincent Baker makes good games. My top 20 list has three Vincent Baker games on it. [None by Ross, I should add.] And Apocalypse World may be the best of all of them. Seriously. Stop reading now and go play that. I don’t know why you’re here.

One of the brilliant and fundamentally destructive elements of play are the “Moves.” Without going to far into depth with it, imagine that good players who aren’t jerks benefit greatly from this brilliant mechanic. And people who like to ruin campaigns and/or do stupid things for XP exploit this mechanic. Essentially, Vincent has designed a mechanic that 99% of the human population isn’t ready for and that ignores human psychology. For the rest of us 1 percenters, the game is like the heaven with 72 virgins who are all Monica Belluci and really good at sex, despite being virgins.

From a completely theoretical game design approach, Vincent has heralded the end time. [Don’t think the metaphor is lost on me.] All those who exploit the power of the dice are doomed to repeat it or something. [That line is funnier if you read it with the correct tone. Why are you staring at me?]

Vincent’s designs do this a lot actually. The games themselves aren’t about the systems he creates, so much as the choices he creates. Dogs in the Vineyard is ultimately mathematically broken. But he doesn’t care. The metaphor of DitV is that you are ignorant people interpreting the word of god and casting judgement on the faithful, who in turn are playing ignorant characters interpreting the world of god and casting judgment on the NPCs. It is so rich and deep and meaningful, the core mechanic could have been coin flipping and it wouldn’t have detracted at all from the [VALUE] of choice. [Although some people would argue the game wouldn’t be as fun… but we’re talking about choice. Quit derailing me, Ross.]

Which brings us first circle back to the Wishing for Wishes guy at the start of this article. If you want to “win” and beat the GM, you can do that with a 1st edition 2d8 greatsword. If thinking about things and the consequences of those things isn’t for you, put all your points into STR and DEX, dump the three social stats because they don’t belong in a miniatures game anyway, and kill as many orcs as you can before the time runs out. If that’s your idea of fun, do it. In fact, 500 virtuality products (disguising themselves as games), allow you to do just that.

But if you’re sitting down for a social activity, don’t be surprised when the game’s rich potential isn’t realized because you’re the guy who says, “I kill Erkel and make Screech watch.” And if you are that guy, then we are gaming at Ross’ house on Tuesday. You can start without me.

Video Games

Video games are a sticky widget in this design model because they can only regurgitate as many results as the designers bothered to put in. It’s not even a limitation of their ideas. It’s a limitation of their ideas crossed against the budget of the project. Seriously, most video games aren’t even games. I can’t speak any deeper on it than that, without this becoming my graduate dissertation on the “value of decision trees in a polynomial graphics-oriented game design model of both analog and digital capacity.” I play some of them. I get it, but that’s a post for another time. When I’m successful and my opinion on video games matters.

*I am mocking Goodman games’ city with really bad titles even though I did the graphic design that project. PUN-JAR. Really Harley?