Not all role-playing games were designed. Some of them were instead created, and there is a distinct difference between the two.
I’m not a designer or an artist, so this is sort of a difficult topic for me to write on. If I happen to offend either artists or designers by way of this writing, let me now chalk it up to my ignorance of your profession. I’ve been doing some research, but the gods alone know that reading is no replacement for first-hand experience.
According to some people, the difference between art and design is a matter of intent. Design is meant to motivate, to influence a person to take a certain set of actions or to partake of an existent experience in a new and interesting way. Art is meant to inspire; what it inspires is less important than the inspiration itself. Where design is meant to communicate about a thing that already exists, art is meant to share a feeling. Art can be interpreted, different people can talk about a piece’s emotional impact, and each person can have a different viewpoint on it. Good design, by contrast, is unambiguous. It is simply understood. And perhaps most importantly, art is a talent, it’s something you’re born with and develop in your own directions. Design is a skill. Poor designers become better designers through sheer force of education and practice. No amount of education or practice will make a bad artist a good artist; they will have more tools at their disposal, but will still be incapable of eliciting emotional response.
There is, obviously, a great deal over overlap, but that’s the gist of where the line lives.
So what does any of this have to do with games?
When someone makes a role-playing game, we say that game is “designed.” That the person who made the game is a “game designer,” and I think those are misnomers. Not everyone who makes a role-playing game is a designer. Some of them are making games because they are expressing something, they are trying to reach you on an emotional level (even if that emotional level is “Whoa! Cool!”).
For examples, I’m going to use two different versions of Dungeons & Dragons: First Edition and Fourth Edition.
First Edition D&D was a work of expression, it was meant to convey an experience. In particular, the motivations of Gygax, Arneson and crew was to recreate the experiences of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings within the constraints of a tactical war game. The rules were a slapdash bit of cut-and-glue from previous games, and were hardly the focal point of the game. Instead, the game focused on the experience of play, rather than a hard and well-defined set of rules, and I think that’s part of what got people into it. It was an emotionally resonant experience, one that could be interpreted differently by every person who played it. So much so, that the players took to the game in very, very different ways across the United States. Some played to the game’s tactical strategy elements, others wanted to actually build a story out of the play, and yet others were trying to create verisimilitude with the real world in their fantastic role-play scenarios. All of those things were valid approaches to the game.
Fourth Edition D&D was a work of design. It is a textbook that tells you exactly how to play Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. There is very little lee-way. The experience is very predictable. There aren’t a lot of ways to bust the game open, and there aren’t a ton of different ways to play it. Now, most gamers see that as a thing that is universally bad, but for new players it’s ideal. Think of games like Magic: The Gathering (another very designed game); the game plays the same way every single time, but it’s still a compelling, interesting game. Sometimes, new formats will come out to freshen things up a bit (Commander, Planechase), but for the most part you know what you’re getting into with the game, and that makes it a lot more comfortable to play. Fourth Edition is similar, it’s designed to provide a standardized experience within which there is a great deal of deeper play.
An example of a designed game that sits better with people would be Dungeon World. There are a number of good design choices in Dungeon World that enhance the play experience in neat ways. The game’s structure is simple, but very established: the players act, the GM (being the environment and opponents et al) reacts to their actions. The game’s rules provide a solid framework for play that will be similar each time the party gets together, and the rules are central to the narrative flow. The reason I didn’t choose Dungeon World as the first example for designed games is that it is also very artistic. It wants to express the feeling of playing Old School games, and does so through the medium of Newfangled Forge games.
And most role-playing games fall somewhere along a spectrum. Mouse Guard is more designed than artistic, but has a strong artistic showing. Palladium games have a ton of rules text, but clearly lean towards art over design. Pathfinder walks a pretty fine line between the two. And there are games I feel fit much more closely into one category than the other: HERO is designed; Don’t Rest Your Head is artistic; 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars is artistic; Marvel Superhero RPG is designed.
I’m not sure there’s really a point to this post other than an exploration of possible avenues for game critique we don’t look at often. Is a game art or is it design? Is it expression or instruction or a mixture of both? Can a game judged harshly for its “flawed design” still stand up as a piece of art? I would be willing to say so.
Let’s take RIFTS as an example. RIFTS is not well designed. It is obtuse, difficult to play, filled with strange contradictions of system, and riddled with poor design choices. It is also one of the best-sellers at the game store I work at, so it has to have something going for it, right? I think that thing is art. RIFTS as an expression of Kevin Siembieda’s ideal game, is an interesting artifact, and it communicates a lot about the man who wrote it. While on the surface it might seem a ridiculous hodge-podge of science fiction and fantasy tropes, it is in fact a deliberate collection of ideas that Mr. Siembieda finds evocative and interesting. It’s the role-playing game equivalent of a Dave McKean collage if all the components were provided by Larry Elmore and William Gibson.
So do with that what you will, I guess.