The Snare of the Tree, and Other Perilous Seductions

The Snare of the Tree, and Other Perilous Seductions: Essays on the Dangers of Game Design is a short little book by Alexis Kennedy (Fallen London, Sunless Sea, Cultist Simulator). It starts out by asking “what makes a game good”,and goes from there. Kennedy’s answer - after looking at the typical answers of players, designers, reviewers etc - is that a game is good if you are glad you played it, which isn’t unreasonable, and covers type two as well as type one fun, as well as delivery of content that the players feel was worth learning about.

The question then becomes “so what makes people glad they’ve played a game?” After mucking around with a game he wrote when he was nine, Kennedy boils this down to three things:

  • Lucidity - "a lucid game is confident of its essence, and communicates it crisply and with panache.

  • Attentiveness - “an attentive game shows you that it is listening, with response that are clear, coherent, and either timely or enduring”

  • Generosity - “a generous game feels like a luxury of opportunities, with surprises, last chances, and moments of untidy grace”.

Translating these into larpspeak, an attentive larp is one where your decisions matter and/or get fed back to you later, and a generous larp is one where you’ve got a large space of possible choices and/or some easter eggs. Lucidity is a bit harder; in theatreform, I think its about the writing style being used to pull you in to the world. Which is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Campaign larp can do the same, but usually has to worry about mechanics as well, which all need to be pulling in the right direction (or at least, not getting in the way).

There’s a fourth quality, vitality - “potential; complexity; the sense of something that hasn’t come off an assembly line” (and later, “the feeling of engagement with a human mind”). Larps usually find that bit easy, because we have so many people involved, which naturally leads to complexity and a sense of life in things.

And that leads on to the problems - one for each of those qualities. These are less obviously applicable to larp, though there are two which are quite recognisable. The Dollhouse Delusion is simulating what interests the designer, rather than what interests the players. There’s a Sid Meier quote in this bit about how a game isn’t meant to be about the designers - “The player must be the star, and the designer as close to invisible as possible” - which accords nicely with my lazy theatreform design prejudices and immediately bought to mind larps where that wasn’t the case. Larps which are all about the NPCs, or where the GMs are telling their story and the players can’t shape it at all are examples of the dollhouse delusion.

The other recognisable problem is the title, The Snare of the Tree. Taken from an urban design essay about how a city is not a tree, its basicly “making something dead through structure”. Which is tricky, because we need structure to write a larp (e.g. factions, or a relationship map), but too much of it, or if the players notice the strings, means it doesn’t work. I think I had some of these problems with Stolen Crown; I certainly had them when trying to work on a still-unfinished larp called “After the Revolution”, where I’d written a lovely background and then things didn’t fit into the pentagram / rivalries / agendas / McGuffins structure I wanted them to go into (which is an example of the structure becoming a straitjacket rather than an inspiration or a tool, and getting in the way rather than helping). And of course if the players notice the structure in-play, it can undermine their experience (apparently this has happened with Venezia, which uses an entirely symmetrical design).

(One of the other problems, The Flag of Convenience isn’t so much a problem as a reminder that even working titles are useful in focusing your ideas and giving direction, so you should choose one. If it doesn’t work, you can always change it. The Book of Sand - “doing what you are inclined to do, rather than what needs to be done, and making up for it by doing it in quantity” - OTOH struggles to find an obvious larp example. Spending all your time making the prop which will only be seen by one or two players, rather than on plot which will be seen by more, perhaps?)

The biggest problem with all this is that its all very high-level. The qualities are things to aim for, but it may be difficult to tell if you’ll hit them. The problems are more concrete, as "try not to do that"s, so there’s some direct use. Anyway, to judge this book by its own criteria, I’m glad I read it. It made me think, and did not waste my time. Which I guess makes it good?