Should authors explain the game structure upfront to players?

I’m starting to lean toward “yes” but I’m curious about what others, both authors and players, think about it.

As a player, one of my biggest frustrations when playing CoGs/HGs is when I start to build my character in a game and I have: 1) no idea of whether certain skills will be more useful than others and 2) no idea about how my actions will affect my success/failure with my goals or how they will impact end states. Admittedly, I think this happens more with HG since their structures vary so much more than do CoGs.

So with Talon City, I lay out all of the mechanics upfront. You build your character in Act 1 (no testing choices). You then move to testing choices, and primary attributes are rotated as options so no attribute is “better” than any other. Die rolls come into play, but you can also bypass the die rolls by using resources or choosing a lower difficulty. Also, before you roll any die, you are given the percentage chance of success, so you know your odds. It’s all explained up front. You’re playing a game where you understand the rules.

With Monologue, I’m doing something similar (when I finalize the structure). All attributes and skills will be tested equally, rotated in different combinations. Powers can be used frequently, but they drain your battery so you must choose when it’s important for your character to pass a particular challenge, etc.

Conversely, I didn’t do any of this for the CCH games. As a result, I feel like some people were left confused about what they could try to accomplish, how they would go about doing so, etc.

I’m really starting to dislike writing games where I, the author, just arbitrarily pick skill checks that are necessary to pass/fail. I mean, that’s the standard approach for a lot of these games, but I’m not sure I want to write games like that anymore. Let’s say, for example, that you need Charm of > 65 to convince a guard to leave her post. How is a player supposed to know this? They might say, “well I have charm of 60. That seems good enough.” But of course, it ends up not being good enough. It seems very frustrating to me and again, very arbitrary, where you’re sort of flailing around as a player trying to figure out “what is good enough.”

Would it perhaps be more compelling to involve resources or create a mechanic where the player has more control over outcomes, but must decide which outcomes are more important to their character to obtain?

And speaking more broadly, we all know how diverse HGs are. Some are really stat-based, others lean more into the narrative, and I’m thinking this diversity is a good reason for authors to explain upfront in an author note, or perhaps in the stats screen, of the basic “terrain” of the game mechanics. If Skill A is only going to be tested twice in the game, and Skill B is tested 6 times, isn’t that something the player should be told in advance? Should the player be told which choices are establishing and which are testing? If the story is pretty linear, should the author explain upfront that most choices affect flavor/prose but perhaps not the big plot points or even the ultimate outcome?

I’m super curious about people’s thoughts on this. Do authors worry we will lose narrative momentum by diving into a mechanical discussion first? Do players even WANT a road map like this? Do players like being surprised with the mechanics and overall structure?

I keep coming back to “these are games,” and what is the first thing you do before playing a game? You read the rules. (and sometimes, for complicated ones, you watch a video!)

Why do we so often avoid giving the players the rules at the beginning?

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It’s an interesting question. I’ve been playing Life of a Space Force Captain and I really enjoy seeing exactly how my choices affect the stats, and what stats I’m lacking if a choice isn’t selectable. That’s one thing I’d like to improve in my games going forward.

In my current project I actually do literally spell out the mechanics for the players:

I debated whether or not to include these gamey details and ultimately decided it was necessary, even if it does kind of take you out of the story. I figure that a momentary loss of “immersion” is worth the trade-off of the players having a better understanding of the impact of their performance, because the drive to perform well is a major part of the experience. Since the game ends when tensions hit 100, you get to see more of the game the better you perform.

All of the games I’ve written in ChoiceScript have been kind of gamey. I think it’s part of the medium, or at least something that lends itself well to the scripting language.

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When I read the title I was skeptical of this. I’m cautious about the idea that an author should explain anything and everything the reader might be curious about beforehand. But after reading the post I see where you’re coming from.

Speaking personally (for my narrative-driven games) I’m leaning toward just letting the reader pick what skill their character has and having that play out in the narrative rather than having to pass skill checks with it. More of a roleplaying thing. But as for other games…

I personally remember when I played the Lost Heir some years ago, I had to restart the game repeatedly because the stat checks were so high and I’d diversified my character’s skills too much. So yes, it can certainly be frustrating when challenge-based games don’t let you know how tough things are going to be for you. But I’m not so sure the solution requires the writer to explain the structure up front.

I think it could be doable through other means. A few solutions off the top of my head would be…

1: Let’s say you’re in a fight and your combat stat is 50 and the requirement to win is 60, since the player isn’t a complete novice in the skill, I’d personally make it so that the PC isn’t annihilated in the fight. They have some skill, so maybe reduce the punishment for failure. That would frustrate readers less and send them the message that they needed to work on that skill.

2: Simply include a line of dialogue or description letting the reader know how dire a situation is. And therefore, how much skill would be required to conquer it. This would generally work best if there were some way to avoid the challenge if your skills are too low.

3: Frequent checkpoints. Getting booted back to the beginning because you failed a stat check is a real pain. But if you’re only sent back a short way it would be a lot less annoying for readers.

4: As @will pointed out. Make choices that have too high skill level unselectable. That way the reader won’t get a game over because they decide to develop their dance stat instead of their main one.

5: If there’s a brutal punishment for failing stat checks. Limit how many stats there are. In the Lost Heir there were so many different stats you needed high levels in that it became hard to balance them all, or even keep track of them. It also sent the message that you should diversify your skills when doing so would lead to a game over on account of not having high enough stats.

But those are just my two cents.

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Short answer: Yes, both in-game and via CS stat-displays

Long Answer:
My development approach to this stems from writing manuals (back when games had manuals) and designing tutorials that often opened up many games.

My opening acts in the four projects I have ongoing are all designed to be tutorials and primers to the game as a whole.

I then try to allow the player enough of a sandbox to experiment with their gameplay in the next couple of acts.

Example: In my Emigre game (demo inside the WiP), the opening act is the childhood of the MC, and the reader develops their MC in several linked scenes.

From that point, I have the MC go through a series of “ground rule” dialogues with each potential wagon train family they can join, with the family’s leaders going over the roles and “jobs” the mC is signing up for.

Then the next act is all about learning how all that works in the game and getting a “feel” for your chosen MC. Narrative-wise, this is pre-Oregon trail time, so the main events of the story are still up ahead.

Now my Emigre project is under rewrite, because of the fabulous feedback I received. What is shown in the demo regarding the copy will be changing a lot in the future, but the structure of this game as outlined above shall remain the same.

I do not think I arbitrarily pick checks – in the above acts, they are always designed to improve the reader’s experience further in the story, so that, even if “failed” these choices lead to better results in the future.

This is very important to my designs, and it is one of the reasons my Emigre project is being restructured from a survival-type of structure to a more inter-character/intra-character structure. The feedback I received was that the survival aspects did not fit with the above.

If it means I rewrite 300,000 words, then it means I rewrite those 300,000 words.

Yes.

It is why I have a more “complicated” and “compartmentalized” stat screen.

I know that there is a thread currently active that extolls the “less is better” view of stat displays, and I understand their view.

Nevertheless, one of my lessons learned from my manual/tutorial days is no matter how hard you try to show and not tell in-game, there will be those that need further resources to grasp the mechanics structure of a game.

My Emigre project had author notes and prefaces before each version I tested, although I have found many testers do not read them.

For the future, I will open all my games with at least an author note.

Here are the stat-display options (minus the screen being currently displayed) for my Patchworks project:

  • Return to the main stat page.
  • View the Trait stat page.
  • View Character Relations page.
  • View Character Customization page.
  • View Codex.
  • View Gender/Orientation/Romance/Friendship Toggles
  • Return to the game.

My design goal here is to never have the reader “need” to visit any stat display other than the “main” stat page, but to provide more granular looks at the mechanivs in the other displays if interested.

Here is where I think a reader would get lost in the weeds.

Providing such a detailed signpost would encourage and even “cannonize” a min-max or “preferred” play-through. I would very strongly discourage this, unless you release a guide or hint book or something of that ilk.

Production costs and resource allotment was the reason most often given here. Bleh.

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If they are to a significant degree (20 vs 19 is meh, 20 vs 15 is significant), this is called “bad game design”. I’ll be accepting neither questions nor feedback on this.

I’d like to see the stat description menu tell me what the thresholds are and what they mean, and then be given context clues in the situations. If you tell me in the stat description menu “50% Stealth: in normal conditions, you can easily slink by your average watchman”, but then in the text you tell me that the watchman is particularly attentive or that I hear the floorboards creak whenever someone walks by, those context clues tell me that this isn’t an “average watchman” or “normal conditions”, and therefore 50% is not gonna cut it.

This has the advantage that you can pull a fast one, where the information suggests to the player that they should have been able to make the check, but they don’t, for a surprise reveal. “50% Melee: you can take on 5 regular opponents at the time” but then you run afoul of the (normally average) town guard and face one of them and they give you a run for your money, you may go “what the unheavenly fuck is going on here?”. Obviously, don’t give particularly bad consequences for failing this (but give enough of a hit to make the event memorable).

EDIT: You can also give an ADVANTAGE for failing this “fast one” check: when you need to raid the guardhouse, and you recognise the guard that gave you a run for your money if you engaged them, then you can adjust the tactics accordingly, an advantage that players who didn’t experience their combat prowess would have.

Yes, and also, bad game design.

Yes, but this can be done via context clues.

Because you’re bastards, Moser, bastards! shakes fist

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I’m all for this. I’m sick of games where you are stuck choosing between upping a skill or spending time with a friend or LI, and if you choose the latter, your MC ends up dying if someone farts near them. While I’m complaining I’m also sick of personality stats being decided by choices–especially since authors and players differ on what personality stat a choice affects. It’s a constant struggle trying to figure out how an author categorizes different choices, and I’m typically forced to code dive so I don’t screw up the MC I’m roleplaying by turning a snarky fighter into a brooding bookworm afraid of their own shadow. Being able to pick starting stats up front would solve that. And if the author wants to change the skills, allow for training (while still allowing personal interaction with NPCs, please).

This, also, has been one of my biggest beefs with a lot of video RPGs. You start a game where you’re a war hero/courier in a wasteland/whatever and you are typically an adult. Yet, you have no money, no skills to speek of, can’t use a gun without shooting yourself in the foot, and have a completely blank personality. Um. Nope. Unless you’re suffering from amnesia, then none of those things should apply. That said, I’m fine with amnesia stories.

Yes! Also, where there is room, allow for different skills to either enhance that combat skill or to substitute for it where it makes sense. I mean, let’s be real here: combat isn’t a single skill that one learns and is able to kick everyone’s ass. It is a combination of things. Training and experience, yes, but also wits, the ability to analyze a situation, and not to go all art of war, but knowledge of the enemy. And luck… don’t forget that. So to base success on one skill only can be infuriating, especially when the player isn’t sure how the hell to get that skill bumped up in the first place.

On your #2… another way to do this is to use narrative. Instead of shoving a choice at a player without them understanding what they’re getting into, it only takes a few sentences in the narrative to make things clear (say, in this instance, for someone whose skill is nowhere near high enough):

My eyes scanned the battlefield, taking in each of the five enemies that faced me. I was outnumbered and outgunned. I know my abilities, and know how to read my enemies. In that moment, I realized that, if I didn’t find a way out other than fighting them, I’d be six feet under by tomorrow…

Give the reader that and they know what they’re facing. You can still give them the choice to proceed if they so choose (some people like the pain) but at least they are forewarned. And ffs, if it’s a more of a story than stat raiser, let there be a way to survive, even if it’s having someone come in and save their ass.

Again, I agree with you. Games with too many stats give me a headache, and the author typically prefers certain ones, so if you choose wrong, you’re screwed.

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Explaining core gameplay is the job (or one of the jobs) of a tutorial or early levels. This doesn’t have to be done explicitly, especially if there is no tutorial (which there generally isn’t for Choicescript games). But the early stages of the game should definitely allow players to be aware of what the game expects from them.

I think for Choicescript, you can think of the demo portion as your “tutorial plus.” You want players to know what they can expect, gameplay-wise, from the full version. But if that’s all it is, they don’t really have an opportunity to explore how their choices affect the game, so you will want to include just a bit more. (The demo should really also tell the player what genre the game is, and some demos seem to lack in that regard, but that’s not really related to stats.)

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This is actually an interesting subject, and I think this comment summed it up for me:

The demo portion of your game is the most important part of your game, and it feels like not everyone is aware of that! This is where you explain your game structure, and what people can reasonably expect from your story.

What this means is:

  • If your story has morally skeevy elements, have the player do them early on so the reader can nope out if it’s not for them. (SoH did it, as did I in FH)

  • If your game is heavily stat driven, have enough points in the demo where you can make varying builds, and a minor showdown/event where those stats are tested in a manner relevant to how the main conflict of the game will be resolved.

  • If your game can cause game over/deaths if the player picks the wrong choices or ignore warnings, have one happen early on to show that this can happen before too much of the game has passed.

  • If your story has a lot of action, have action be the focus on the demo. If your story has a lot of interaction with people, have that in the demo. It needs to be representative.

Please note that this doesn’t mean you can’t have plot twists or play around with surprises or genre switching if you want it, all I am saying that the core mechanics need to be in the demo, even if they might not be exactly the way they are used to later in the game.

For example: If your game is about an accountant who later finds out they are an amnesiac secret agent who is now on the run from their former bosses out to kill them, you need to have some action/danger mechanics in the demo, even if it is from an accountant’s point of view.

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It’s funny you bring this up, because I’ve been considering this too. I think in the scenario where a game might differ from the “norm” that people have come to expect, spending a page or two to explain the process of the game succinctly could help. I’m definitely considering it with my current project, because initially, it’ll likely feel like a “dating sim”, when it’s not. There is technically a “right” option and a “wrong” option. My stats are also geared a bit like Dragon Age’s stats- whenever you make choices, it affects your character’s stats, but these stats themselves can’t lead to a good/bad ending, it’ll just affect flavor text as the story moves forward.

I think if I can find a way to quickly and simply explain this, it’ll give players a chance to go into the story prepared and equipped, and perhaps a little less stressed.

Conversely, we could also take an approach similar to Fallout. In that game, you have skills that do require skill checks in order to proceed, but the game is ALWAYS completable- one way or another- regradless of which skill checks you have… unless you really mess up, lmao. When your player looks at a skill, it TELLS you what it does- “Charisma is your ability to charm and convince others. It affects your success to persuade others in dialogue and prices when you barter.” Super short, super sweet, and VERY indicative of what the player can expect in the game. By seeing this, they know that there will be chances to persuade characters and buy things, because bartering is mentioned.

The second is probably the “better” way, now that I think about it, lol. It feels more fluid and might be less likely to take a player out of the “zone”.

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