This is the first in a series of posts where we explore the mechanical, narrative, logistical, and personal limitations of real-world gameplay. In this post, we’ll give a quick overview of the topic.
Here at Savage Internet, we love real-world games. In fact, our current main project, The Puzzling Madness of John A. Macdonald, is a blend of escape room and historical tour. Our previous project, Zombie Rendezvous, was based around paper booklets and in-person interactions.
As game designers, we find we learn just as much, if not more, from LARPs, pen-and-paper RPGs, board games, sports, card / dice games, and other real-world games as we do from video games. If you think about it, that’s not really surprising: there’s a richer history behind real-world games. Games have been part of our lives for thousands of years, while the first video game wasn’t invented until the mid-20th century.
If we love real-world games so much, why devote so much time to talking about their limitations? First off, it’s well-documented that the right kind of constraints can drive creativity. Clear, well-understood constraints are particularly useful here.
Aside from that, knowing the limitations at hand helps to focus efforts on workable designs. For instance: a design that has people walking around for 12 hours straight is likely flawed, as is one that relies on people being in two places at once. It also helps suggest areas where the right technology or tools can help make the impossible possible. Maybe the 12-hour game can be broken into stages, with progress tracked via a simple website that players sign up on. If players need to be in two places at once, maybe you can split their role among team members, and let them coordinate over SMS. (These aren’t the easiest solutions here, of course: you can often get by with carefully removing / editing content.)
Finally, there’s a bit of selfish exposition here. Our team has a lot of experience building technical things: software applications and libraries, hardware prototypes, etc. Our released games thus far, on the other hand, have been largely low-tech and in-person - so you can think of this series as a sort of braindump of what we’ve learned, often the hard way by sweat and trial-and-error and all that character-building stuff.
The Types of Limitations
Mechanical limitations are upper bounds on the complexity of a game’s rules, system, and setup. In video games, the computer handles much of the complexity for the players. Real-world game players, by comparison, must often remember and apply the rules themselves. This includes keeping track of their specific role, abilities, equipment, inventory, etc. where applicable. It also means being aware of special rules or exceptions, which are often introduced to maintain game balance. In more complicated games, that can be a lot to manage! There are, however, ways of dealing with this complexity, as we’ll discuss in Part 1.
Narrative limitations are similar to mechanical limitations, but for story complexity. Some LARP systems come with an expansive backstory, involving warring kingdoms and deities and such, that can quickly overwhelm new players unless they receive a more gradual introduction to the game world. Of course, narrative limitations exist in all storytelling media - a story has to make sense, for starters, and it helps if it’s compelling, consistent, etc. However, any game that asks its players to internalize and apply aspects of the game world - enmity between fictional races, the state of diplomatic relations, knowledge of fantastical devices - faces an additional difficulty in narrative design. Moreover, the narrative often has to be made manifest in the game through rules, props, costumes, NPC interactions, etc., and this is more difficult to do convincingly if your narrative is overly complicated. Finally, games have the unique problem of branching narratives. A negotiation might succeed or fail, a time limit might be met or missed - and all options have to lead to compelling storylines. We’ll look at narrative limitations in Part 2.
Logistical limitations are more for organizers: the more complicated a game design, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. An early version of Puzzling Madness had a mini-game where players donned blindfolds, then ran around picking up letter tiles hidden around a park. We thought it was really cool, and it was - as an idea. When we tried it out, we quickly hit snags. You can’t just leave letter tiles in a park and expect them to stay there, so we’d have to lay them out at the beginning of the mini-game. This meant one of us had to put the blindfolds on people while the other ran around placing tiles, which in turn meant the players had to be kept entertained while the mini-game was being set up. Eventually, we scrapped the mini-game altogether, mostly to save ourselves the hassle of running it. We’ll talk more about that experience, and about tools for helping manage logistical limitations, in Part 3.
Personal limitations are physical and mental limitations of the human body. Players need to eat, drink, breathe, sleep, and use the bathroom. When players place their trust in a game designer, however, they usually expect more than simply basic survival. They might expect that game tasks won’t be overly dangerous, intimidating, demeaning, or uncomfortable. Part of this is knowing who your game is for: Tough Mudder enthusiasts and cribbage players will have very different thresholds. There’s a lot of individual variance within these groups as well: one player might love blindfold mini-games, while another might be extremely apprehensive about them. Our series will end with a look at personal limitations in Part 4.
Keep posted for the next installment, “The Limitations of Real: Mechanical”!