Friday, April 28, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: The Feedback Loop That Drives RPG Gameplay

A good game design features fundamental play procedures that create self-reinforcing feedback loops. In tabletop RPGs, the first one is the one around which the entire genre of game revolves: "What Do You Do?" For those that missed it previously, the loop is this simple:

  • Game Master describes current situation.
  • Players decide what to do.
  • Game Master adjudicates results and announces consequences.
  • Situation updates; return to start and repeat until resolved.

That's not just combat. That's everything, at every scale and encompassing every scope. This is the fundamental feedback loop to which everything else attaches.

If there is some activity that comes up routinely, it's not wrong to systematize it into just such a mechanic. Various editions of Dungeons & Dragons do this with exploration- both overland and underground. This is where the "crawl" comes from, as it is this gameplay-driving feedback loop in action.

  • Advance a given space over a unit of time.
  • Execute discovery operation in the new space.
  • Deal with encountered creatures or devices, update situation and repeat until concluded.
  • Update situation; return to start and repeat until concluded.

Now that you see how this feedback loop drives gameplay, you can easily adapt the loop to systematize on the spot any other activity that is routine in your specific campaign. The specifics will vary, and so therefore will be the specific rulings that you must issue to do so. Yes, this can be done in terms of the OODA Loop, and while that's not a conscious design decision by Gygax or Arneson it applies because tabletop RPGs are wargame derivatives- that's how and why it's applicable.


  1. My experience indicates that people who entered gaming well after its inception tend to have less of this structure in their games. Do some modern gamers feel this is too structured for "cooperative story generation"?

    These simple structures (your comparison to OODA or plan-do-check-act is very apt) lend a common pattern to games that GMs and Gamers can instinctively follow, sort of like one group of people who can read and use roadmaps versus those who can't.

    Gamers who learn this general "OODA" concept early adapt well to other gaming systems of similar type. Gamers who focus on story and eschew underlying mechanic seem to have a tougher time participating in ODD, D&D, or early edition AD&D

  2. As somebody who is trying to put together a homebrew system for a small game between friends, this insight is very helpful. Thank you!

  3. OT - Hi Bradford, Brendan on therpgsite wouldn't let me ask this - - thought you might have some thoughts on my query - which RPG publishers should be whitelisted as having rejected SJW activism? I'd like to be a bit more discerning with my cash (& Paizo doesn't need any more of my money) :)