What My Games Are About

Had dessert with ogremarco, sirriamnis and Mrs. Z last night. ogremarco has gotten pretty amped on indy games lately and is trying to encourage me to write a game. Having been down this road a couple times before, I’m a little skeptical. But I’m trying to keep an open mind. He did bring up some points that got me thinking about my own games and how I tend to run them. So here’s me musing on what I want my games to be about and what I’ve poached in order to accomplish that.

As I may have mentioned before, as a GM I’m more about the roleplaying aspect of roleplaying games than the game part. As a player, I can kinda get a bit more into the game part. But as a GM, I figure I’m there to help the players make an entertaining story and interact. And decisions I make while a GM tend to reflect that. This is particularly true in Amber, where the GM is more the arbiter of how things work. But even in dice games, I’m willing to forgo dice hucking if it’s a reasonable idea and it makes for an interesting story. I’ll rarely have people roll to search a room if there’s a plot hook waiting to be found. Instead I’ll save those rolls for when there’s a chance for some risk and I want an element of unpredictability.

To write up a quick laundry list of what I like in a game:

  • Fleshed out player characters.
  • An ensemble cast vibe. You aren’t a team or a party, you’re a group of characters thematically linked and you each have your own personal story arcs.
  • Lots of character interaction.
  • Good communication and trust between players.
  • Strong engagement from the players.
  • An immediacy to the setting. Perhaps even immersion. If I’m in a tense social conflict, I want to feel like I’m a tense social conflict.
  • When playing in a genre specific game, I like to feel like I’m in that genre.
  • A bit of exploration of the world the GM has created.
  • A fair amount of sparklypoo.

For the most part, rules aren’t overly relevant here. Instead it’s mostly social contract, game planning and what I’ll call “narrative sense.” I don’t know if choosing good players falls more under social contract or game planning, but that’s in there. Narrative sense is a combination of evocative narrative, interesting NPCs and knowing how to work with the input from players, all done on the fly.

And these aren’t things you can easily codify. The indy game philosophy is that “rules matter.” As ogremarco commented last night: What if you didn’t just ignore the rules because they got in the way, but instead used them to help play? My feelings on that squirm around a little bit. I got a chance to play a few indy games at Go Play Northwest that revolved around social combat mechanics or player-narrated gaming. And on a certain level it was fun. But it’s not what I want to play when I’ve decided I want to play a roleplaying game. I don’t want dice telling me how my a character acts. I want people to be so into their character that they know how that character is going to act. And, as a player, I want to be surprised and figure stuff out. You don’t get that when you’re narrating the conflict yourself.

This is not to say I don’t want rules. I like having something to fall back on when I don’t have a good feel for how to rule in a situation. Plus I’m a pushover as a GM so rules can provide a sense of risk that you won’t necessarily get from my narrative. And some groups need that more than others. I’m leaning towards nWoD with the kids’ group because, in part, I think they’ll respond to the rules involving injury and loss of humanity more than my simple narrative descriptions.

To give an example: The Frozen Misery of Centuries. I could have run a “Song of Ice and Fire” style game a whole lot of ways. But the players had mostly been interested in playing Exalted and I’d alreadly noodled around the idea of doing a SoIaF style Exalted game so I figured: Hey, why not?

There are a lot of things I dislike about the Exalted rules, especially the 2nd edition. Character creation is a bit too time consuming for me, especially selecting charms. I don’t like what they’ve done with the combat system and I’m not big on social combat mechanics. I skip a lot of combat because I don’t have a good enough feel for the Charms to just improvise NPCs (like I often do in other games) and combat makes distirbuting camera time difficult when you don’t have everyone in the same location. So why don’t I run it in a system I prefer and just put it in the Exalted setting?

Because it wouldn’t be Exalted.

I’ve played in some games that were effectively other settings adapted to a different ruleset. And it’s just not the same. The example that comes immediately to mind is a GURPS Cyberpunk game that someone ran, stealing heavily from Shadowrun. Yes, there was cyberware and magic and elves and VR. But it wasn’t Shadowrun. There’s a certain codified cosmology inherent in Shadowrun that you’re not going to easily replicate in a different system.

I could have run an Exalted game using a system I’m more comfortable with or better fits my tastes overall: Amber Diceless, OVA, PDQ, Primetime Adventures. But it would have lost a lot of the feel of playing Exalted and would have required a lot more converting on my part that I’m not really interested in. The Exalted rules approach the cosmology in a certain way and provide a certain power level that is hard to recreate otherwise.

Not everyone is going to come to the gaming table with the same interests. While the indy-game ideal of evaluating and playing games based off of your own interests sounds nice, the fact of the matter is that I play RPGs as a social activity with my friends. And I’m happy just to have a half-dozen players available to play. Trying to find one game that will make all of them happy is unrealistic. Instead I try to aim for a general style of play and tailor the game to fit that. It won’t fit everyone’s tastes, but I can at least hit a range. Which is also how I end up running four different games: So I can offer up different styles of play that my friends enjoy. The beer-and-pretzels Exalted group isn’t going to necessarily enjoy the more character-driven Exalted game I try to run for FMoC.

Now that I’ve said how much I don’t care about rules, here are things I like having some sort of mechanic for that helps me with how I like to play.

  • Rules that encourage players think about who their character is. The best example I can think of regarding this involves ecourages character quizes and character journals. I got this from Amber Diceless, but that can’t have been the first place it’s shown up. There are a lot of games that offer these concepts as options in the game, but not many offer a mechanical reward for it. I like rewarding it.
  • Rules that encourage players to play out their flaws. A lot of games have a flaw system. Not many have a flaw system that really encourages it to come into play. The ones I’ve liked have been those that offer a reward when it comes up in play. 7th Sea, Nobilis and nWoD all have this.
  • Rules that encourage a mood and rules that encourage good roleplay. Those are almost two categories, but they overlap a lot. A lot of games have a roleplay XP reward, but I always feel a little iffy about that. Because it often boils down to “who has entertained the GM this session?” And I hate laying out judgement calls like that. I stumbled across Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures and I’ve utterly stolen it, mixing it heavily with the Hero Points from Zorcerer of Zo. The in-game player-to-player reward system has been wonderful. Beyond that, nWoD’s Virtue/Vice/Morality system looks pretty good at encouraging players to be in-character and deal with consequences. I also like Exalted’s Virtue system for this as well. And for action-oriented games, I like games that make it feel actiony. The stunt die mechanic in Exalted helps in that regard: It may be a clunky system but it encourages good narration around that clunk. The linear and simplified combat in Buffy and nWoD also heads in that direction.

The challenge with all of these is that it’s hard to encourage people to go after the carrot when the reward has no perceived value. Offering people XP or die rolls bonuses doesn’t do much when such rewards don’t have much impact in regular play. What good is getting XP to improve your stats if you never use your stats?

For example: I tried using “drama points” in an Amber game I ran in order to reward people for contributions. I was a little vague on what drama points could do, people rarely spent them, and when they did spend them it was sometimes beyond what I would allow them to be spent for. “I want to drastically change this NPCs entire motivation and behavior” wasn’t something I was comfortable with. But I also never really explained what they could do in concrete terms. (And in Amber, “concrete terms” is a bit dodgy.) So it ended up getting scrapped along the way.

I’ve generally decided that if I want to run a game in a specific setting I’m not going to bother adapting rules to it. I tried that with OVA to run a Night Watch game and only regretted it. I’m fine with a character description and just running from there in a free-form fashion. The most system I might involve is some riff on something like PDQ Lite or something similar. Otherwise I’ll just use whatever canned rules there are. There are few systems I will outright avoid.

The wife is here to get me and I can’t think of any further way to beat this horse. I’ll just post this now. =)

7 thoughts on “What My Games Are About

  1. ogremarco

    I look forward to our next face to face about this. I have some ideas garnered from here and a few other places.

    I must admit that i, too, waffle about emotional and social mechanics. On the one hand, I’m all “Ooh! Neat new toy!” but on the other hand I kind of feel it sad when you have to reward a player for something I consider to be a natural evolution for all but the most stunted powergamers. Then again… there’s Rob. So you can see my dilema.

    I think we might do well to collaborate, with you writing setting and basically using me as a prole. “Build me a system that rewards emotional turmoil without forcing it.” you would say.

    “Yes, mighty lord, it shall be so” I would reply.

  2. colomon

    I’m still trying to figure out drama points, but it seemed like they worked very well in the last two sessions of my diceless Star Wars game. Once I faced the characters with a big enough threat, they started spending the points pretty freely and creatively.

    I’m very excited about the idea of trying to use them in an Amber game, and using them to reward contributions.

  3. admin Post author

    How do Drama Points work in your game?

    I think an aspect of my problem is that there’s rarely a very good “big bad.” I’m not great at making good long-term villains.

  4. admin Post author

    I always feel vaguely mortified when people still use the “roleplay vs. rollplay” description. On a certain level, I can’t believe that distinction still has to be made. One of the things I have to keep telling myself is, “People don’t all come to the table to play roleplaying games for the same reasons.” Even if you enjoy playing together and everyone theoretically signs on for the same goal in the game, not everyone is going to have the same level of engagement with that idea. Look at the diversity of character motivations in “The Frozen Misery of Centuries.” What makes an interesting character to each of these people is sometimes radically different.

    I may have to clear off my plate a bit more before I agree to work on anything. And in November my soul belongs to 50,000 words. But I’d be willing to noodle around ideas with you in the off chance could find a setting we could agree on. I’ll confess that after I wrote this post I started musing about a very basic game system. I started writing it up at work but the last couple days endd up being a zoo and I didn’t finish it. But I’ll post it when I’m done.

    I can’t see you being anyones prole, though. The idea of you being my minion is frankly laughable.

  5. ogremarco

    We don’t have to 100% agree on a setting. You do. I’ve made enough settings. i want to try my hand at rulesmithing and doing it with something you’ve come up with and love sounds like a great and lofty challenge.

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