The Problem of Conceptual Separation

I know that I’ve been majorly off schedule recently, but it’s mostly because of having relatives for the holidays and not being able to get some good writing time, so I’m going to try to be writing ahead for a while to keep things going.

One of the greatest problems that tabletop game designers (and, less frequently, video game designers) have is with conceptual separation between game mechanics, the behaviors they are supposed to be a response/encouragement to.

The first, and important, point to establish is that this is usually a bad thing. There are times when this may be desirable; for instance, almost every mechanics-driven roleplaying game will allow a character at least some means of advancing an unused skill or allotting points as the player specifies, regardless of how a character has acted. This allows players to experiment with new things and mess around with advancement in a way that would otherwise be impossible; whether it’s the rogue deciding to pick up some levels of skill with using magic devices, or a Ragemaster unlocking the Feral Slash skill in a digital ARPG. A note should be made that a large factor in the success of this method lies in the fact that the player has a say in the process.

In many cases, this sort of conceptual separation is appropriate and desired; it is usually explained away as being the result of some action that is not immediately apparent to the player (training that is not seen or narrated, magical boons), or simply ignored as part of the suspension of disbelief that many players are willing to grant a game.

The more problematic kind of conceptual separation occurs when a game is oversimplified or poorly designed, and fails to associate game events with each other. Consider, for instance, the inverse of the prior case study—when a character advances, they are assigned a random skill or ability without player input or examining the character’s actions. In some cases, this may make for an interesting experience, but it is also very frustrating if a character gets an illogical result or one that cripples them.

Conceptual separation generally comes when outcomes are not linked to consequences. If you use a game design theory that focuses on elements of play as resources that are available to players, this is frequently a consequence of not having a sufficiently complex depth to the game; a game with one resource, for instance, will either reward or punish players for actions with that single resource (or not at all), but it is likely illogical to make the jump between the actions possible with that resource and the consequences that modify it. When an action’s outcome impacts all future actions, or when it affects no future outcomes, there is a likely chance that conceptual separation is going to occur. There are a few exceptions to this rule; games with a death spiral health mechanic (like Shadowrun, with its decreasing health pools), don’t cause conceptual separation because the mechanic is designed to be a universal penalty for a failure to pursue a character’s well-being, but generally wide-ranging effects on mechanics have a good chance of pulling away from their intended purpose.

When designing, the best way to avoid conceptual separation is to map out your concepts ahead of time. Every action should have a conceivable consequence (consequences do not need to occur without fail) that will impact some future actions; a couple exceptions can be made, but they should be carefully monitored.

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