Posted by on Dec 16, 2008 in Design, Movies, Musing, Story | 12 Comments

I heard last week on a mailing list for USC film school alumni that Nina Foch has passed away.

Nina taught the course on directing actors that was required of all first-semester students in the graduate screenwriting program at USC. As new students, none of us knew each other*, and most of us were new to Los Angeles. Some incoming students had directing and acting experience, while some of us… um… didn’t. It was the kind of “forged in fire” instructional experience that sticks with you forever. Nina never put a kind spin on a review of work she thought was crappy, and never pulled any punches. She was tough, and mostly fair.

Nina instructed obliquely, but with force. It took me more than a month to start to figure out what she meant when she talked about “intention.” And it turned out that the class would have been more accurately entitled “Deciphering and Assigning Intention, Because That’s The Only Thing It’s Important To Understand When You’re Directing Actors.”

You’d be most of the way to understanding what Nina meant by “intention” if you thought of it as “motivation.” But bafflingly to me at the time, she violently resisted “motivation” as a synonym for the thing she was trying to get us to understand. I finally came around to understand that “intention” was a word Nina used to describe what a dramatic character was trying to accomplish, internally, by doing some activity. “Motivation” wasn’t right because that could too easily be misunderstood as an exterior force.

Now, Nina never once just came out and said what she meant by the word “intention.” I’m still not sure whether that was clever pedagogy, or if her brain just didn’t function in a way that would let her define anything once and for all, clearly and unambiguously. But in any case, learning about intention was a long process of elimination. When she swore and yelled and made you feel like shit, you had misunderstood. When she didn’t, you might have gotten it right. (Alternately, you still might have misunderstood, but said a not-wrong thing by lucky accident.)

Imagine a writing teacher who desperately wants you to understand what he or she thinks is the most critical thing about writing fiction, and who has extremely precise and devastatingly different definitions for the terms “narrative” and “story,” but who can’t describe the difference between the two past being able to tell you either “absolutely not” or “perhaps” when you propose, say, a given passage of text as being one or the other.

This, it turns out, is how dogs are trained.

In any case, intention was always described in the form of an infinitive. “To apologize,” “to murder him,” “to set the table.” But a character’s intention was almost always divorced from the activity the character happened to be doing in the scene.

For the activity “to set the table,” a decent intention might be, “to show his mother how grown up he is.” For the intention “to murder him,” good activity choices might be casual cocktail party conversation, or a game of cribbage. Intentions, most often, were metaphorical.

The intention “to apologize” sticks in my mind because that’s what she eventually decided that I was doing when I talked about my alto saxophone in a class exercise called “hot objects.” To boil it down, each student brought in a physical object of emotional significance and verbally free-associated about, aloud. In jawing about the thing—telling stories about playing jazz in high school and college, and whatever else—I was more or less telling the horn that I was sorry to have put it in a closet for five years upon graduating from Hamline. The thing to understanding is that I never said anything remotely like, “Sorry about that, saxophone. Sure is a shame.” I told the stories that came to mind; what the people who were listening understood is that I was sorry.

It is, and it was, tricky, her phrase “intention.”

Anyway, I had been thinking—even before I heard that she had passed away—about Nina’s technical use of the term “intention” as I think it might relate to the discussion of core minutes of gameplay that we’ve been having in the comments of the DSU thread.

Our “core one minute” is a lot like her “intention” in one way because it’s slippery, and it’s concerned with interpreting art, or even Art. It’s obvious that it’s an important concept, and may even include the key to the whole question of why any given game works, or doesn’t. What’s more, I have the sense that an even slightly skewed misunderstanding of “core one minute,” just like a not-quite-right understanding of “intention,” would (a) be very easy to come by, and (b) lead you down an apparently useful road but one that was, in reality, dangerously wrong.

But also, “intention” goes to the question of why. It’s about the force that prompts and inspires a dramatic character’s action.

Understood correctly—and assuming that we eventually get there—the core minute might also wind up helping us figure out a game’s why.

That’s why I feel like “to command the awesome power of magic” is a compelling explanation of Ars Magica‘s core minute, and why I’m attracted to Paul Czege’s alternative proposal, “to test the power of magic and love against doubt and fear.” (Although I know exactly what Nina would say about that last proposal. She’d say, “I don’t know where to put my hands [to act that out].”

But a key difference from drama to gameplay when you talk about “why” is the difference between character and player. In games, intention has to be about why the player is playing.

So, the more I think about it, the more I think that the core minute of gameplay is more like the “activity” half of the intention/activity duality—the half that is at once essential and meaningless. Kevin Wilson and Eric Lang call this the “gameplay ritual” around the office. The word “ritual” works for me as a word for something that’s both essential and meaningless.

The really great thing is that understanding the core minute in that way, as part of a duality, would make room for some other thing in games: a bigger part, a motivating part, an ephemeral part, a part that means something bigger.

But since games are largely obsessed with the activity, I think that’s where they’ve historically fallen down. Players, critics, and designers haven’t generally seen far enough past the activity to make a serious stab at talking about or designing for an underlying intention-equivalent for games.

(And anyway, why call it an “intention-equivalent?” That’s horrible. How about we just use the perfectly good term Nina gave us, and just say that it’s an intention?)

But you object: Isn’t the intention of playing a game “to win?” Hell no. In Things We Think About Games (Thing 28), I wrote:

When playing a game, be aware that the other players are not necessarily playing for the same reason(s) that you are.

You might be playing to compete [to win], but the guy across the table might only have joined to hang out with the group, or bathe in the theme, or poach your girlfriend. Even among those who are “playing to play” there are different spins. Playing to win, playing to make sure everybody has fun, playing to broaden experience.

And what’s more, different games might drive the same player, with the same personality and same psychological make-up, to put on different intentions. I, personally, tend to play Eurogames to learn the systems, high-theme games to bring about as many awesome moments as possible, and roleplaying games to create stuff. Even beneath those three intention-like motivations, though, there are probably even deeper intentions. In my case, probably things like, “to avoid being left behind,” “to get back to my adolescence,” and “to vindicate my choice of profession,” respectively.

None of this goes to the questions that have come up recently about what the core period, or periods, of tabletop roleplaying might be. I’m cool with that. Maybe some other day I’ll delve into those questions; I do have some opinions.

But I think that this question of intention in gaming may be even more important than that. As we quoted Raph Koster in Things We Think (from his A Theory of Fun for Game Design):

We should fix the fact that the average cartoon does a better job at portraying the human condition than our games do.

The “A” that I finally got in Nina’s class was the hardest one I have ever earned, in my whole life of schooling. Gameplaywright is turning out to be an equally difficult course of study, made that much harder because none of us, here, have been making games for 60 years. Nina, a master of her craft, had already been acting for 13 years when she appeared in The Ten Commandments. Yes, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Freaking Commandments.

Rest deservedly, Nina. We’ll be groping around here, trying to figure it all out. Thanks for showing us a little bit of the way.

* Not entirely true. In the massivest fit of “small world” in which I’ve ever participated, the incoming class of thirty or so students that year included Chris Thell, who sat directly behind me, in an obviously alphabetical seating order, in my 7th grade life sciences class at Highview Middle School in New Brighton, Minnesota.


  1. Will Hindmarch
    December 16, 2008

    The obvious and immediate follow-up must be: How do you design a game around intentions, when they may be as divorced from the activity as you say?

    My intention is to get the other players to buy me dinner. Design your game.

    (I’ll get into the “core instances” of play in RPGs more specifically later.)

  2. deadlytoque
    December 16, 2008

    Well, it’s arguable that -any- gambling game has as one of its intentions “get something material (such as dinner) from the other players” — and if your only intention in the game is to win dinner, and you don’t learn how to thrive at the game, then you will quickly become frustrated and go play something else.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    December 16, 2008

    Many (most?) forms of gambling are carefully arranged to blunt or disguise the flow of money from player to player, in part as a means of maintaining civility and in part to transform one’s bets into “money” (from its previous state of “John’s money”) before transferring said money to another player. It’s bad for business (and usually rude) to draw attention to the lateral flow of money. Typically it goes up to the house, then back down to the players.

    Poker is unusual, and noteworthy, as an exception.

    That is, these games are trying to diminish the ability of the player’s individual intentions to skew the game. Even the goal of poker is to win money from other players, not to specifically get another player to buy you something. As an example of intention versus gameplay, if my intention were to get Jeff to buy me an expensive dinner, I might play poker in such a manner that I lose money (but not as much as dinner’s going to cost me).

    My point being that the game itself isn’t written to accommodate my intentions, though play may change based on my intentions and I can certainly express my intentions through the actions of the game.

    It seems to me that a game can be designed to attract particular intentions, or to be malleable enough to allow many intentions to play together… but can a game be designed based on the unknown intentions of unrevealed and unexpected players?

  4. Jeff Tidball
    December 17, 2008

    So, certainly you can design a game that’s more rewarding to some intentions and less rewarding, or even punishing, to others.

    Poker was the first thing that came to mind, naturally, when I read your first response last night, Will, because it’s the best example of a game that’s clearly rewarding to commercial intentions. RPGs are clearly more rewarding to creative intentions than victory-related intentions.

    Something that I think Nina would want to point out about the need (or, “need”) for an intention to be different from its corresponding activity is not that you fall down and fail unless they are different, but that you do not live up to your obligation (or, “obligation”) to add texture and subtext to the thing you’re creating. Drama where the intention and activity are exactly the same boils down to porn, right?

    Games that allow and encourage subtext would have to make for more interesting human interactions, and therefore better games. I mean, right?

  5. Will Hindmarch
    December 17, 2008

    I’m just trying to push you off the pier here, Jeff, and see how far you’ll swim.

    Yes, games in which many various intentions can be expressed through the same actions are, to me, better games. It’s not that Rook takes Pawn that tells the story, right? It’s how and when and why Rook took pawn.

    It isn’t just that you raised my bet… it’s the fact that your raise can mean so many things.

    I like this intention vs action idea, if only as a new exercise.

  6. deadlytoque
    December 17, 2008

    Largely-off-topic: I love this blog because the discussions you guys have in the comments are the kinds of conversations I wish I could have.

    Back on-topic: I wonder if an informal research could be done, with people self-analyzing as best as possible, wherein respondents try to nail down a few basic intentions for playing certain existing games, and to try and parse some kind of connections between existing systems and existing intentions.

    A sample set of questions:
    1) Do you play each of the following; if so why?
    a) Poker;
    b) Settlers of Catan
    c) Chess
    d) Gears of War

    2) When you play games, do you do so for any of these reasons? Please list the games you play for each reason.

    a) To stimulate the imagination
    b) To interact with my friends
    c) To win something material
    d) To “turn my brain off”

    Obviously, the real thing would need to be a LOT more detailed, and the second part would start to take form once more information was collected. Once a basic cross-reference of intention vs. game was complied, then one would follow-up by breaking down games (again, a simple survey of people playing games would probably suffice) into their component activities. That done, you would theoretically have a table of what intentions correlate to what activities (as identified by gamers themselves). I suppose the next step would be to then refine the actions present in order to best stimulate the intentions of the people playing those kinda of games.

  7. Christian Lindke
    December 17, 2008

    I think that the questions that deadlytoque wants to ask are good questions for a survey.

    Though at first glance, the social science and marketing student in me yells “The questions are too BIG. Break them down into their component parts. One question at a time please!”

    Don’t mind him though, I’m much less critical of the beginning of a discussion. In fact, I recommend future discussion here about each of the above listed intentions in the second question.

    Now to the essay as a whole.

    First, I think it is important to note — following from the earlier discussion — that I have been convinced that games can have multiple, even seemingly antithetical, one minutes of play. The best games likely have more than one, each of which appeals to a different gamers gaming intentions.

    For example, D&D certainly has the kick down the door and kill the monster core one minute. That is why so many successful games have been mere reductions of D&D to that minute. Descent and Dungeon come to mind quickly. Descent is an excellent game, fun to play, that is a concentration of this one minute — a D&D bullion cube if you will. On the other hand, in the post-Aaron Allston/Robin Laws/Eric Wujick/White Wolf/Mike Pondsmith era of gaming, the creation of narrative and the — to filch a term from Paul Czege — protagonization of characters have also become core one minutes of various games.

    Different players have different intentions, and expectations, from a gaming experience. A game can focus on a few one core minutes (or only one) of play, but role-playing games seem to have broadened the scope of how many core one minutes are offered.

    I mentioned in the DSU post, that I believe the core one minute of Ars Magica to be the creation of spells using the excellent spell system. Someone responded, ardently disagreeing with me and gave as example his groups various attempts to create narrative being his core one minute. Interesting, I thought. Except, no rules are required for that phenomenon — or at least only a minimum of rules if you want it to be a game. One can just as easily use Once Upon A Time to achieve the core one minute my dissenter articulated. That doesn’t, by the way, mean the dissenter was wrong, just that the core one minute isn’t unique to Ars Magica — nor need it be.

    That got me looking at my 3rd edition copy of Ars Magica, my others are in storage — yes even the most recent edition — and I noticed something interesting from a design perspective. One that reinforces my dissenter’s view, while simultaneously not affecting my proposal at all. There are two combat systems. One for dispensing with mooks — the kick in the door and kill baddies system — and one for simulating more important duels. The very nature of this systematic choice implies, and reinforces, that the creation of protagonized narrative is a core one minute — one that doesn’t rely on specific emotional pulls as Czege’s proposed core one minute.

    I still believe that a core one minute of Ars Magica is a private manipulation of the magic system, but I also believe that the creation of protagonized narratives is another. Why else would you separate important from unimportant fights? Why else would you recommend focusing on one wizard, his companions and grogs, at a time? Why else provide a milieu with so much downtime that must be filled with narrative created by the players? BTW, fiddling with the magic system becomes a subset of this greater one minute I think.

  8. deadlytoque
    December 17, 2008

    To reply: I think the questions would -have- to start big, because there’s no way for us to know at the start much about which intentions are going to match with which actions. The point of the broad questions is to encourage players to provide their own connections. Once a baseline of connections has been established, then a tighter, more focused survey can get us even deeper.

  9. Jeff Tidball
    December 18, 2008

    Deadlytoque, I’d love to have the end result of a survey like the one you propose. I would rather shoot myself in the head than conduct such a thing, naturally.

    Christian, I’m coming around on the possibility that a game can have more than one core activity, and maybe even that it could be desirable. But I’m not sure about the wisdom of a designer trying to create such a game on purpose. I think you’d be much more likely to wind up with a game that contains nothing that’s fun. Or—and this is definitely a problem Ars Magica has—you’d wind up with a game that appeals to lots of people, but has vast swaths of material that also don’t appeal to lots of the same people, and so it’s impossible to support the line in the long-term with supplements, because the universe of interested buyers for any given supplement (which, I’m assuming, you’d have to tailor to one core activity more than others) is very small.

  10. Christian Lindke
    December 19, 2008


    While I think that games, especially good ones, can — and do — have multiple core one minutes, I definitely don’t think that designers should usually attempt to design games with the intention of multiple one minutes. The designer should have a clear “vision” with regard to the core play elements of a game — the why of the game if you will.

    Capes was designed as a GM-less superhero game. In many ways, it is a structured version of Once Upon A Time, by which I mean compliment not criticism. The superhero creation system is not very interesting, as a game, but it is very flexible with regard to the game’s goal — telling a superhero story. This goal is emphasized by making controlling the story the key conflict of the game itself.

    Roleplaying games being what they are, there will be different types of player intentions, but Capes system will alienate some gamer subtypes because of its core minute. The game appeals to a niche audience, though I would recommend the game to all fans of superhero rpgs as inspiration for running superhero games.

    World of Warcraft, on the other hand, clearly went into design with a desire to have several core one minutes rewarded. There is the forage and craft game (the game I have spent far more time playing), there is the kick in the door and kill things game (played by many), there is the kill lots of people in a “raid” game, and there is the 3rd person “fighter” game (pvp or pve). Most of these, plus leveling up, have been the highlights of other MMOs. Some MMOs have focused on the development of one of those areas at the expense of another, WoW made them all priorities with a philosophy to combine what had worked in other MMOs while doing each of those tasks better. You can do that, need to do that, when you enter a mature paradigm.

    When you are creating a “new” game, you need to avoid this desire. And to be honest, most games that actually improve on prior games do so by focusing on improving on one core minute. WoW is the exception.

    Well, that and Fable II where I have spent more time Blacksmithing than adventuring. Go figure.

  11. betsy
    December 21, 2008

    Heck, I’ll miss Nina, and I never even met her. But the stories about her class are among the most entertaining stories I hear from the USC crowd.

    On the question of intention, this post made me think about the portion of the D&D 4th Ed. PH that discusses the various types of gamers. It is difficult to design a game around intention because players may have such wildly different intentions in playing the same game (to tell a story; to build a world; to beat stuff up; etc) but it is much easier to build a game around character intention. I wonder if there is anything to be gained from the concept of “objective,” in that it may meld the two. Players with wildly different intentions who are playing the same game are more likely to have the same “objective.” Or is that a semantic sleight-of-hand?

  12. Will Hindmarch
    December 21, 2008

    This is an area we’ve explored a lot in talks and in text: In D&D, you as a player know what you’re going to do when you sit down to play. That’s expectation. (You’re going to kill monsters and get treasure — even if that’s not what actually happens.)

    In Shadowrun, you know what you’ll be doing: undertaking a nefarious mission/heist against some giant corporation, most likely.

    These games are built on the implicit idea that your character wants to do what the game is about. It comes back to the old question of, “What do I do in this game?”

    In RPGs, supposedly, you have total freedom — but total freedom often makes for pretty bad gameplay, or at least group gameplay. Among the most effective and most appealing restrictions on that freedom, to shape play into gameplay, is the objective. The reason your character doesn’t do the easy thing and go get a nice mundane job as an innkeeper is because, implicitly, your character is supposed to want to explore dungeons and challenge multinational corporations — regardless of why you the player play.

    Successful games like D&D and Shadowrun (successful both in sales and as brands, I’d say) do stand at intersections of player and character intention. Put another way, they are easy to like.


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