Last week, when I posted my frustration with my own game-writing endeavors (of which I have many, and this is but one), RedNightmare commented and asked me to explain why FATE style (and many indie-style) games “rub me the wrong way.” My reply comment was running long though, so I decided to turn it into a post. I realize that negative commentary is always a touchy subject, so as I endeavor to answer the question, I want to preface this by saying that I don’t really like these games – but I fully endorse playing them if you do. Everything is subjective. What drives me crazy about games like this may be perfect for another group/player/DM. So, it’s cool. I get it. There are just some aspects of these games that make me – not want to play them so much.
First – and probably the largest thing that puts me off is that I actually like being at a table with a strong and very present GM. Many of these games, by my reading, set the GM off to the side as much as possible. The GM exists – mechanically and narratively – as a mere facilitator more than a full participant. In some cases, the GM seems to take on the role of an additional player at the table more than anything else. I’m uncomfortable with this. In other cases, the GM seems to be given narrative control in exactly the same way players are, and this is problematic for me because it then involves the GM in competing against the players instead of working to ensure a full-time fun experience.
When I GM a game, I like to have the story revolve around the PCs, specifically, I like the players to be very proactive to advance the story the way they want it to advance. But I’m also very present at the table, in the sense that I run my NPCs to be smart, forceful, and very real in their own right and I try to keep a firm hand on the game without restricting my players’ decisions. I don’t need my DM role legislated to me by the game mechanics though. And many of these games seem to me to do just that.
Secondly, and I’ve written about this in passing before, but I don’t really like Fate/Drama/Style/Hero point mechanics. Especially in terms of legislating fun. I want my players to be inventive in their own right and to work with me to build trust at the table. If I describe a room and tell the player that there is a huge mural on the wall depicting a battle scene, and later, that player tells the story of that battle – the last stand against Kyrrigore, the Demon Lord, and the loss of the Bloodblade – and uses that as a way to manipulate the noble he’s come to meet, well, that’s just good playing, I don’t need a PC to spend a drama point or a style point or have to win wagers to choose to do that – they just should. But many games legislate this sort of behavior, creating scene-influencing mechanics that force a player into thinking about resource management or competition over roleplay. I’m not down with that. If I have to spend a style point to fill in a vague piece of GM description, then I’m going to be considering the value of that style point, not the coolness of the scene.
Third – and this may seem to backtrack a little – I’m a RAW guy. I tend to run games as they are written. I don’t houserule much, I don’t use a lot of ‘optional’ or player-created content (at least, not from players who aren’t at my table). I believe very much in clear rules (even if they are simple) that help keep a game moving. Many of these indie-games have rules that tend toward making mechanics out of just about everything. And that frustrates me (of course, the other side is that they don’t really have mechanics for anything…) Not because I can’t use them RAW, but because the rules cover aspects of the game I don’t really feel like need covering. I guess the best way to say it, I like to use the dice (cards, whatever) when I need to, otherwise, just get rid of them. And I’m not really into rules that are “intentionally subjective.” Aspects being a great example of this in the fact that one player with Aspects often (and again, this is my experience, yours may be different) will have one view of what that Aspect does, the GM might have a different view, and the other players at the table might each, also, feel differently. Bummer when that happens. Players will also (again, my experience) create Aspects that attempt to flout the conventions and be “encompassing.” I think, when given a throttle, most players will push it to the max, and I can’t fault them for that. Simultaneously, some players will cripple themselves (by comparison) by failing to build well and then be dissatisfied with the whole experience (or will drain the fun for others if this crippling is done intentionally.)
While I’m discussing this – I’m also really, really not a fan of Compel mechanics. I don’t enjoy building mechanics into the game that set a player up for disaster. To me this creates a real sense of distrust at the table. Players have to be extra sure not to meta-game and the GM is under much closer scrutiny when considering the decision to use a PC’s traits against them. To me, this only creates a much more tense atmosphere in what is supposed to be a “fun” and “safe” environment – the game. I recognize the usefulness of these mechanics – and the counterargument that when a player assigns one of these compels or complications that they are prepared for the consequences. I’m not sure that’s always exactly the case though.
I’m also not fond of the minimalist or deconstructionist elements of many of these games. For example, I recently read a post linking to the Lady Blackbird “adventure” – which I read because the writer there described it as something of an “indie darling.” I read it. I didn’t get it. My girlfriend didn’t get it either. It didn’t feel like an adventure. It felt like one of those one-night, closed room LARPS where everybody gets a character and spends the next four hours going through two stages – the awkward first hour where you run around figuring out who everyone is and trying to synch up your complete lack of emotional attachment to both your character and theirs, and the remaining three hours where you rush madly about trying to accomplish your goals instead of telling a good collaborative story. It wasn’t an adventure – it was a scenario sketch with pregens. And I’m fairly certain it was also inspired by an episode of Firefly… (not that there’s anything wrong with that – we all borrow from what we love in adventure design – the anxiety of influence is strong in gaming culture).
This is, again, running long. There are other things I could say. And I realize that some of these views are slightly hypocritical (to say I don’t like “intentionally subjective” mechanics but still love Amber DRPG and Barbarians of Lemuria, for example – I could write a whole additional post about what I see as the difference). Of course, almost all our views in life can be challenged when examined – but that’s why we remain reflective, right?
Anyway. I hope this is, in some way, a useful answer.
As always, thanks for reading.