Porn Logic

I should begin by disclaiming: this article has nothing to do with porn. It's more entries into the RPG Lexicon, terms I use when discussing adventure design.

With that said, let's talk about porn.

Porn can be "about" anything. There are porn movies about pirates, porn movies about spies, porn movies about superheroes and galactic explorers and private eyes and advertising executives. These characters, like any characters in any medium, have goals to pursue and problems to solve: the rival pirates want the treasure map; the new planet is inhabited by intelligent humanoids with which we must make first contact; the grieving widow believes her husband was murdered for the family's cursed emerald, and so on.

It just happens to work out that, every time, that the way to solve these problems, and achieve these goals, is for everybody to engage in the naughty naked sexifying. After a given number of sex scenes, the plot manages to resolve itself in the momentary scene-scraps in-between. Another mystery artfully deduced by Max Hardwood, Private Dick.

The more RPGs lean heavily into the Visible Rules, the more adventure design begins to operate according to Porn Logic. Because visible-leaning play places high importance on things the system can define and resolve, the adventure's problems tend to shape themselves into the game's pre-defined mechanistic loops, which works out because, in such games, the Player Characters are in large part defined by their choices and contributions within those loops. Mechanistic loops are defined by the centrality of Flat Tactics: tactical sub-scenarios defined in system terms, which can be resolved by mechanistic problem-solving and consulting the system, with only occasional need for adjudication by the Game Master.

If the system’s core loop is chase scenes, for example, and the “goal” of the adventure is to rescue a political prisoner, it’ll just so happen that the way to rescue the prisoner is to have and succeed in a series of chase scenes. Next week, when the adventure is about healing a diplomatic rift, it’ll just so happen that the way to heal a diplomatic rift is to have and succeed in a series of chase scenes. In such a game, chase scenes are the optimal response to, and shape of, nearly every core problem, just as the solution in Max Hardwood and the Case of the Lethal Lubricant was to have a series of sex scenes, and when the villainous Madame Lube returned in Max Hardwood Gives Them The Slip, the solution was to - again - have a series of sex scenes. Porn Logic.

And of course, most of the core loops in traditional RPGs are more about fights than chase scenes, but it's useful to recognize that fighting isn't the actual issue here. The issue is how allowing the system to be important exerts gravity over what a game is "about," and whether the game's tactics tend to be "flat."

Videogames depend on mechanistic loops for their success because videogames are made entirely of system. Players can only perform actions accounted for by the system, against challenges defined in system terms. With sufficiently complex systems, or the wild-card of multiplayer participation, you can sometimes get emergent solutions (solutions that the designers didn't explicitly predict) but nothing approaching tactical infinity, because tactical infinity depends on playing outside the system, and that requires a living Game Master.

So, the more an RPG leans into Porn Logic, the more its gameplay begins to resemble that of a videogame ... or a card game, boardgame, or grid-and-counter wargame.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, where the Invisible Rules are more important than the system, and where tactical infinity and tactical roleplay are embraced as the core game experience, the process of adventure design is dramatically different. Mechanistic loops exert little or no pressure on the reality of the PCs, so if the adventure is about "rescuing a political prisoner," the PCs will need to create and implement a rescue. If the adventure is about healing a diplomatic rift, the PCs will need to create and implement diplomatic change.

These problems (and their solutions) are examples of Rich Tactics: tactical challenges and efforts that operate largely outside the game system, requiring frequent adjudication by the Game Master. Instead of relying on the kewpie doll of success appearing at the end of a series of chase scenes, the PCs must create and implement solutions for which no explicit mechanism exists. And so, the GM must prepare problems that need creative solving, rather than "set-piece" loop-sequences that need engaging. It's difficult to overstate how much this can alter the design process, and the resulting game experience.

It will be important to understand, going forward in this series, that at no point on this spectrum do we step outside of rules-based, tactical game design when we create adventures. Rather, we exchange Flat Tactics for Rich Tactics, and swap out the Visible Rulebooks for the Invisible. We don't even necessarily step beyond loops. We step, rather, toward non-mechanistic ones: richly tactical, character-facing loops which afford greater variety, more surprise, and greater potential for strong characterization.

And as always, these are simplified extremes bookending the spectrum of the Traditional RPG. Many systems offer multiple loop-styles ("this is about dogfighting and baking competitions"), every Trad RPG allows (with varying enthusiasm) for tactical infinity, every Trad RPG allows (with varying enthusiasm) for mechanistic loops, many gamers enjoy both Flat and Rich Tactics, and even creative solutions can dip into mechanism for fragments of it (rolling dice to pick a lock as part of a more complex overall plan, for example). But with all those variables accounted for, Porn Logic is still a thing. A big, hard thing.

Thinking in terms of Flat Tactics vs. Rich Tactics, and recognizing the gravitational pull of Porn Logic, are the game design and GMing side of creative vs. mechanistic problem-solving. If you want to support the gameplay of creative solutions, your adventures must provide creative problems.

Next time we return to the Lexicon, we'll look at what it means to design for, and design using, the Invisible Rulebooks.


Fade to Bright

My next blog post will be a new addition to the RPG Lexicon series, entitled "Porn Logic," which, regrettably, has almost nothing to do with sex in roleplaying games. So here's an anecdote that does. It's just a tiny moment, but it's one of my favorite tiny moments to recall.

With gamers I know well, a game's subject matter is welcome, sometimes encouraged, to press past the boundaries of PG ratings. Given the choice between sex and violence (American culture's two favorite ways of pressing those boundaries) I'll vote sex 100% of the time. But with newbie gamers (or experienced ones new to my GMing) I'm super extra very careful about ribald content in games, thinking twice and reading the room before I'll even hazard a risqué joke or double entendre.

And so it was, eight or nine years ago, when I was first introduced to Paula, the romantic partner of another gamer I knew, and he'd been telling me for ages how much I'd like Paula and that I should come around and GM some games for them. Paula was new to RPGs.

Paula's took the the open-ended nature of both Uresia and Risus character creation with gusto, and made a Penguin Sea-Monster PC (an intelligent penguin the size of a tall human who liked to refer to itself as a Sea Monster because that's a fun thing to be) who'd eventually enter the campaign lore as a legend, but this was just our Session One.

They were in the city of Shadow River, over in the Logantown district, passing Death's Dais on the way to a meeting with an important NPC, so the next bit of local scenery was Nectar's Garden, the city's famed Elvish brothel. It was late in the afternoon so the gardens, gazebos and pool outside the great stone house were bustling, and the sounds of laughter and splashing and music were unmissable on the street. Nothing naughty to be heard, just a kind of garden-party atmosphere, but the PCs knew the place by reputation, so I mentioned that.

I was only setting the neighborhood scene, but Paula's interest perked right up, and they insisted on taking a proper penguin peek. I found myself in a precarious position, with Paula's penguin peering into this preeminent playhouse of prurience! Newbie Gamer! screamed the klaxon in my head. Keep it funny, light, maybe a bit sitcom, and they're just in the gardens so it's just a garden party anyway!

To make a short story even shorter, sparkling garden-party banter did nothing to dissuade the Penguin Sea Monster's fascinations, nor did one Elf's recommendation to try the excellent neighborhood alchemist nearby before he shuttered his place for the day. Paula's Penguin wanted very much to sample Nectar's Garden's full menu of services.

So I knew what to do: fade to black. I described some elves escorting said giant penguin into the warmer chambers of the great stone house, amid vaguely-alluded-to sounds of distant pleasures, and I faded right into the comforting PG-rated black: "And an hour or so later," I offered, "you emerge feeling very refreshed and --"

And Paula would have none of it.

Paula (quickly, with force) stood up from their chair ... planted their hands on their hips ... looked me dead in the eye and said "Oh NO you DON'T!"

Paula was on the verge of giggling, but I could tell it was no joke. "Fade to black" would not be a suitable description of this Penguin's good time!

I was still acutely aware that I was here GMing for a couple, though, plus newbie ... so I improvised a desperate dodge by describing a kind of montage of what was going on several feet above the private room full of Elves and one giddy penguin: slow-motion rubber-duckies soaring and flipping damply through the air, followed by a length of silken cord, a whoopie cushion, a bicycle horn, and a marmalade sandwich.

To my great relief, this would - barely - suffice. Crisis averted. Game continued. Paula, very much, met.

Paula's been one of my favorite people, and favorite gamers, ever since, and contributed valuably to both the 2nd Edition of Uresia and to Toast of the Town, where the legendary Penguin Sea-Monster remains the only PC in the history of my runs to charge Dolemon Drake with a penguin belly-slide, knocking him into an open sewer-grate.

Paula's also in need of help right now; please consider it. Thank you.

A couple of my photos of Paula from when I was still in Colorado.