Game Determinism: The Engines of the World

(aka) The Magical Toe Rings of Power

So, a player did a thing.

What next?

It’s easy to talk about the gameworld in terms of logic, as though it were real and these things must be bounded by sense. After all, a gameworld is a simulation of reality[1].

And in many ways, it is. Gameworlds (like all fictional worlds) should adhere to a basic level of internal logic. Up is up and down is down.

But it is imporant to remember that a lot of things that are intuitive to one person are not necessarily intuitive to another[2].

Time and again I have said before to my players that this or that is consequence of player action, which is still true, but the metrics which we use to measure their success, the mechanics of the system, each design decision that led up to this moment, they are also to blame. I wrote the metrics that measure whether or not a character is successful. I determined what would and wouldn’t contribute to any given doom track. I am the one who calculated the effects of that ritual or if the populace respond to this rabblerousing.

The gameworld is, ultimately, a system written by the organisers and adheres to their logic.

Which neatly segues into an explanation of the eye-catching subtitle: If this is a game that allows for the creation of all-powerful toe-rings, does it then allow the player to wear it upon their toe encased in sock and boot? If so, is this also a game that allows players to search one another and forcibly strip them of their boots?

It is all to easy to reason that logically if any given object can be empowered, then why not something small and inconspicuous? If that it can be made such, why can’t be worn under boots and concealed? Etc…

These decisions should be dictated less by logic and what any given ref or player may find intuitive about the gameworld and more by conscious design. A gameworld is rarely about simulation.

A game with small artefacts would grant certain advantages and incentives very different to a game with very large, very iconic artefacts. The latter may make possible (but also difficult) the theft of artefacts, but equally their size and distinctiveness would them more traceable. There may be a rule prohibiting the permanent removal of such items from the play area or that they would return to their fated owner between events. These decisions are not there to disempower the player, but to change the balance of power between certain actions and incentivise certain sorts of play.

The same applies to the stats of the game and how the crew are utilised. All these decisions shape the tactics of the players and how they respond. The systems shape play on a fundamental level.

This is not to say that if the players fail, it is always my fault. Nor that any attempt to measure their success is a fool’s endeavour. But I know I have jokingly mocked a player’s failure for not working out what the plot was, when it was my fault for not having correctly seeded the information. I know I have enabled the NPCs to run off with loot because I’ve already told where it is.

Once they’ve happened, of course, they’ve happened and overstatted encounter or otherwise, the characters are dead. The illusion of the gameworld is a fragile one and largely speaking, events that have occured become sacrosanct. I couldn’t and certainly shouldn’t write anything out.

But next time, I should be more aware of all the pieces of the game I’ve created.

The actions of the players are shaped by the rules of the game itself. If a player is obsessing over numbers, then perhaps the numbers have become too important. Instead of chastising them for playing the game in the way the rules incentivise, I should consider creating different rules.


For all the glib advice that the players will kill all that can be killed, loot all that can be looted and eat all that can be eaten[3], the grain of truth is that if I don’t want something eaten, it shouldn’t be edible.

But it is, of course, impossible to anticipate very eventuality, but it thus useful to start deciding on some base principles:

Attacker wins or defender? Does my system favour the one who acts first and pushes their advantage or does my system favour the one who is defending?

Secrets or free information? Is this a game where one has work hard to find out information or is a game where one has to work hard to keep information hidden?

Does the setting tend towards stability or entrophy? How easy is it to galvanise the populace? Is it even possible? How big is the world and how much influence can one player have upon it? Is this a world which responds to players trying to shape it? Does it ignore the attempt, push back or take on a new shape?

Answering these questions should give me an idea of how the players fit into the world as a whole and give a baseline as to how the world would react to them if they do something unexpected.


[1] Or at least a version of reality.

[2] You should also read Gameplay vs Realism on Gaslamp Games’ Blog. It touches on how to make bend realism to fit the gameplay. Also, if you for some perverse reason miss the Maelstrom downtime system or simply feel like a game of colony building, fishpeople antagonising, maize farming and eldritch horror summoning, I heartily recommend Clockwork Empires.

[3] When I was a freshling, I was told the story of when candy gems were used on an adventure as the props for soul gems. The moral of the story was this:If you don’t want a player to eat something, it should not be edible