This is a post about froth. Definition time: Froth is what happens when people talk about their experiences at a game or event in an excited, positive manner. Froth is the sign of a good game, or at the very least, a good experience.

Froth is how you win at games you’re not supposed to win at – games like Live-Action Roleplaying and tabletop games, for example, where “winning” isn’t a state of being. Victories and failures are commonplace, obviously, but there’s no permanent, game-ending state of victory. We’ve developed an oral history of what we do because no other journal can really exist and still be accurate.

I think Froth, in part, comes out of Emergent gameplay.

Robbery in progress

Team Fire Hazard, a fellow live-games company, took the first run at the kiosk. Despite good spirit they fared poorly and only stole 3kg of sweets

Emergent gameplay is one of the cornerstones of what I like about games, and what I put into games when I design them, because I am fundamentally lazy. (I design live games, by the way, for folk who don’t know that) Creating massive set-pieces and finely crafting player experiences might work every time – I’m looking at you, Call of Duty, you beautiful bastard – but that’s a lot of work. Especially for someone with next to no budget, a day job, and all that aforementioned laziness.

So rather than building experiences – and the first iteration of Zombie LARP, way before it ever hit full 40-man playtest status, was a scripted horror experience with the possibility of character death – we try to introduce elements that will play together well and mesh into something interesting. It’s lots of work and ideas and scrapped concepts and arguments at the start of the process, rather than lots of effort at the end to keep it all moving.

Emergent gameplay is a tricky beast to define, but it’s – well – it’s basically the opposite of a rollercoaster.

Gobstopper crew

Three of Team Nefarii, including the Gunman (technically a Gunwoman) whose gun kept going off unexpectedly with hilarious results

It’s about player choice and control, breadth of in-game verbs (stuff like “Shoot” and “Hit” and “Run” and “Hide” and “Heal”), and how well those verbs play off one other.* It’s about giving players room to experiment and the opportunity to fail and for that to be okay. Minecraft does it well – so well, in fact, that it allows players to build and ride rollercoasters in-game. It’s when someone has fun using the tools provided in your game, not the fun provided in your game.

They also work better when lots of people take part. It’s hard to develop new ways to play when you’re on your own, but a spare pair of hands can double the impact you can make on a system.

All Live Action Roleplaying Games have emergent gameplay as a matter of course – maybe some don’t, but I’ve not heard of them.** Not all live-games have it – Johann Sebastian Joust, for all that it’s a good game, doesn’t have any because there aren’t enough verbs (Attack, Dodge, and Deceive) unless you start cheating or introducing new elements.*** A sandbox doesn’t make for emergent play, either – the new Batman Arkham titles are devoid of it entirely. As I said, it’s tricky to define. It needs to be designed almost with one eye closed, hoping to spin together elements that don’t feel forced together but mesh well enough to flow.

I carried "Gavin" for about three minutes total

A conman in police officer disguise feigns an injury and neutralises half of the kiosk guards as they help him to safety

The Gobstopper Job is the second live-game I’ve designed, if you count the five years of iterative design by committee that Zombie LARP’s undergone as one game. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t work properly.

I kind of knew it did work, though, by the way that you could overhear froth in the park surrounding us as the day went on. Hearing froth about your own game is a special kind of ego massage for a game developer, especially if they’re able to move about unseen or unnoticed through a crowd when it happens (and then announce their presence, pseudo-bashfully say “Oh gosh thanks guys” and try and scab a drink off whoever it was that was talking).

The verbs in the Gobstopper Job, a game about stealing sweets from a Kiosk in the middle of a park, are as follows. All players had Run, Sneak and Steal – important tools for a heist. The classes divided up the other verbs with their equipment. The Gun Man could Kill, the Demo Man could Stun, the Con Man could Lie and the Bag Man could Carry.

It was a bit of a crapshoot limited by what words I could represent with limited rules and trying to stay close to traditional heist roles; but they worked, somehow. They fit together well and created something better than the sum of its parts.

The bit that made me happy was that every team approached the objective differently. Some split the party (and failed to get out as many sweets as teams with a properly co-ordinated attack). Some tried stealth, and one team managed to get in and out of the sweet shop without anyone really noticing. Some tried running directly at the kiosk and taking it by brute force. They all, to a greater or lesser extent, worked.

They're supposed to go in the BAG, God's sake

Many of the heists took a proactive attitude to confectionery logistics, meaning that a lot of sweets ended up on the floor

And they frothed. A bit – not the pure, unadulterated heady adrenaline-fuelled rush of Zombie LARP, because we were in a park in the sunshine and the experience lasted 15 minutes, not a terrified, screaming hour – but enough to let me know that the game functioned as a whole unit. They talked about things that happened, and things they did, and rescues and escapes and arrests and how they played in a strange system and came up trumps. This wasn’t a closed experience. There was a lot more that they could have done and still played the same game.

What other things generate froth? Teamwork. Excitement. Intensity. Discussion. All of the above and more. But giving someone the tools to succeed, a fun problem to solve with multiple avenues of approach, and a team to help them out seems to work pretty well.

My next game is called Spook Smashers, and is in no way affiliated with the Ghost Busters franchise. All enemies will wear sheets with holes cut out for eyes. Nothing can go wrong.

*An example: imagine that “Shoot” and “Punch” are the main two verbs. Imagine one game which lets all players Shoot and Punch, and one which forces them to choose one every round. As a team game, the second one is more interesting – in my opinion, anyway. As a single player game, it could get frustrating.

** Murder Mysteries, maybe, fall into this category. And I’m sure there’s some weird Scandinavian LARP where the denial of player choice is the POINT, man, and everyone probably wears grey overalls and it turns out at the end that the game is actually about schizophrenia or something similarly unfun and difficult that living in a country populated with nothing but moose and climbing suicide rates drives you to play just so you can FEEL something

*** The difference between LARPs and live-games is also difficult to describe, but generally LARPs involve taking on a character and roleplaying it to the hilt over a fairly lengthy period of time. Live-games are more laid-back affairs and focus on the game mechanics, not the characters or the story – and generally there’s a winner. I manage to irritate people and lose a fair bit of business by making games that don’t fit neatly into either category.


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5 thoughts on “Frothing at the mouth

  • Really enjoyed this post!

    I hadn’t really thought too hard about emergent gameplay before, and I’m not sure that my thoughts about what it might be match with your definition. However, the existence of it gives me an extractable, essentialisable, atomic reason why I enjoy and admire the Nomic rule-changing game / framework so much, likewise the Chairman’s Game card game framework.

    One of the most memorable games I ever played was a cross between Nomic and Perudo (aka Liar’s Dice, Bluff, etc.) – and most of the players played it as a drinking game, though I was keeping up on lemonades until my jaw started to ache. You can’t really glom Nomic or the voting-on-rule-changes nature onto other arbitrary games without effectively turning them into Nomic first and foremost and whatever other activity second, but in the right company, that’s absolutely fine. (It can be designed in – see, e.g., Democrazy.) Accordingly it’s probably a route only to go down under certain circumstances… though, arguably, it bears an identifiable deal of similarity to the game-device structure you used at the NERF Panel.

    Anyway, keep up the great work, and I do hope that big games and the North-East of England intersect again before too long.

  • grant says:

    Congratulations on leaving the first intelligent comment on my blog! I think the joy of nomic rulesets is intrinsically linked to comeuppance and the shift of power; either a person is punished for a rule that they made without thinking it through, or an unlucky/unskilled player given sudden game-changing power gets a chance to make their mark and be “King for a day,” as it were.

    Either way, there’s a little narrative there. Plus, as you mentioned, the joy of creating your own game whilst you play it leads to local enjoyment, marvelling at your own ingenuity, and sharing in the creation of a new Thing.

    I’m not entirely sure whether emergence leads to Froth – it’s almost like I wanted a paper-thin premise to hang my event report off – but I think it’s a big part of it. It draws players into the mechanics of the game and lets them run around the cogs, not just sit on the shell of the machine.

  • FWIW, I found this blog because Hide and Seek linked to your Incitement write-up on Twitter. I won’t say that I’ve read everything you’ve written here yet, but I’ve read a half. It’s (inevitably) really good, and it’s so wide-ranging! Keep it up! I just don’t necessarily have actual responses to most of the rest of it.

    Nomic… I have a love-love-hate relationship with it, and I suspect that Nomic is probably pretty close to RPGs in terms of the extent to which individual game instances’ success or failure is linked to what all the players (and, if there is one, and there had to be in play-by-email Nomic, the GM) want to get from the game. It’s almost as if the “want to play the game to find a winner” and “want to play the game for the joy of creation” motivations become factionalised – and the choice of an initial ruleset (the Suber legalistic default or something much shorter) is crucial in setting the tone and generating a welcoming environment for a the sort of atmosphere of your choice.

    • grant says:

      Glad you enjoy it – I’m planning on getting some more live-game and tabletop stuff up, as there’s not enough being written about it at present.

      I think games need a sort of win condition at one or multiple points in the experience – however vague – otherwise they’re just exercises in creativity that feel unfocused and unconstrained, and you might as well just write a story together. The need to win, whether that’s by escaping the complex or killing the dragon or getting the most points or eliminating all the other players lends an element to struggle against, a PvE if you will, that makes creation all the more satisfying. Case in point: Minecraft. Many small victories.

  • Today, while I was at work, my cousin stole my apple ipad and tested
    to see if it can survive a twenty five foot drop, just so she can be
    a youtube sensation. My iPad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is totally off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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