Why I Don’t Play Certain Games

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.

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12 responses

  1. Very well thought out post! I think that everyone is allowed to have their opinion on what they like and dislike. You are also allowed to express that opinion and you have done so respectfully and thoughtfully.

    I do like Aspects from the FATE system and have been pretty gun-ho about them (and have incorporated them into my Dragon Age and Savage Worlds games, yet now I’m looking at whether my players are really into them that much or “get them.”

    From my experience on Aspects I think the players have a hard time getting them (and honestly sometimes I do fall into this category) where it is so subjective or misty in what realm/situation it can be/should be applied to.

    Also as you stated what if someone creates an Aspect and it isn’t being utilized. I know that many FATE games state that Aspects can be rewritten and what not, but I know that players who “don’t get” Aspects could start to feel meek or unfulfilled.

  2. Thanks,

    I read your posts on using Aspects in Dragon Age with interest. I wanted to see how you incorporated them as I’ve been playing Dragon Age and really enjoying it. They just don’t work well for me. I didn’t comment because, well, I don’t really have anything useful to contribute since I’m anti-Aspect.

    It is interesting to see new games and game styles develop, but I can tell you — for example — how disappointed I was that Dresden Files went FATE, because now these are books I just won’t get anything out of.

  3. Well said, in my opinion. I share your general feeling. I have a pretty negative impression of Indie games, however, due to a personal matter with someone who tried to use stealth evangelism in my group to push the Indi Agenda, and wound up alienating the entire group, and pretty much killing it off through a long series of thread-hijacks. So that gave me a pretty poor impression of Indie games, though it is totally unfair to judge them on that. But then again, if he is representative of their crowd, maybe there is a reason for it. My overall impression was that Indie games were designed by players who resent the “Tyranny” of GMs, and wish to push the concept that games that emphasize GMs are by default bad by design. I was not down with that, either. That said, I admit my experience with Indie games is limited to a few half-hearted attempts to play them, under the inauspicious star of the Evangelists teachings. Not so great. But all of that said – I do think your points are one’s that, despite my limited experience, seem to jibe with my overall impressions. Of course I also agree with you – whatever floats your boat. If you like Indie games, by all means – enjoy them. But for whatever reason, I just can’t seem to get into it. I like a strong GM who knows his or her world, and the experience of exploring that world, not co-creating it. But like we all will say at this point… that’s just me. Thanks for the post!

  4. This is interesting for me to read. I’m still a relative newcomer to RPGs and haven’t played many different games yet, but I’ve read about many of them with great interest. The Aspects from FATE and games like that always seemed to me to be a way to ENCOURAGE roleplaying – there’s now a mechanical benefit to doing so. But it’s useful to see another perspective – that you feel these rules RESTRICT roleplaying by putting rules around it (I gather that’s what you’re getting at with the mural example). I never would have thought of it that way.

    I’ll be interested to see how this works in action if I ever get a chance to play one of these games; it might not have the effect that I was expecting, based on your experience.

    1. Well, certainly don’t let me steer you away from any new RPG experience. I mean, I gave these kinds of games a good playing before I gave this POV. I was disappointed, but some people love them. And the point of those mechanics IS to encourage RP. That’s really the stated goal. My experience with such things has varied from the norm. It happens.

      And yes, to an extent that was the point of the mural example. I could have used a better one… that one actually happened in one of my games though — and it stuck with me.

  5. I’m not too thrilled with all aspects of indie games either, but I’ve got a couple counterpoints. First, the GM in FATE has unlimited FP to spend, it’s only the players who have a limited resource, and their resource goes up when the GM spends it. Using FP to introduce new information into the game is also a means of showing the players they can actually do that. A lot of players had the experience that they get shot down if they try introducing anything, so giving them a resource to do it is a way of negating that. Of course a good GM allows it anyway, but if they didn’t have a good one in the past, it’s a good fix. Compells are in there for genre emulation, a lot of times TV shows have a character doing something that’s stupid, but nonetheless is in character. Compells are a way of bringing this in. It’s really only valuable for emulating that specific genre though (and was originally intended for Pulp, so it fits in that specific situation, but might not be the most appropriate elsewhere).

    It’s pretty easy to play in a traditional fashion, not requiring fate points to describe something, and mainly using them for re-rolls or a +2 bonus, and never having compells come in to play. They’re all just options, and I find the strength is the descriptive nature of the mechanics rather than the number adding nature.

    1. I certainly understand the reasoning behind these mechanical elements — that’s part of the problem for me though. You said it yourself, “a lot of players had the experience of being shot down…” The problem is, that I see these games having kind of a chip on their shoulder about the GM. And that subtle but pervasive deconstruction of the GM role may be the most at the heart of my dislike.

      But addressing your second point — as I mentioned above, I find the descriptive nature more limiting — because of its subjectivity — rather than freeing. I don’t know if that makes sense anywhere but inside my head but it is the best way I can describe it.

  6. You’re probably right about them having a chip about the GM, most likely because there are a lot of bad GMs out there, and if the GM’s running a system that lets them run amok, you’re screwed. Better to have them playing a system that keeps them on a leash. Bad players are a bit easier to manage, but again distributing the power helps mitigate that.

    I guess it depends on how you go about it. I haven’t ever found a problem with word descriptions rather than game stats and numbers – at least once in play, I have had issues with some players not figuring out how to make their character though.

  7. You really need to check out this post by the Alexandrian:

    http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/6517/roleplaying-games/roleplaying-games-vs-storytelling-games

    I think it might help you crystallize this thought a little more.

  8. […] Why I Don’t Play Certain Games from The Rhetorical Gamer (morrisonmp.wordpress.com) Articles, GM, GMing, Non-player character, Opinions, PC, Playing, RPG, RPGs, Role-playing game, Roleplaying, The Gassy Gnoll, gaming, inspiration   2012 Summer Olympics, characters, failures, gaming, Japan, Jim Palmer, losing, Mia Hamm, Mike Ditka, opinion, PCs, Role-playing game, Sports, successes, The Gassy Gnoll, United States, Vince Lombardi, winning, Women's World Cup 2011   « Interview: Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips and Gamer Lifestyle    Setting Review: Caladon Falls from Savage Mojo » […]

  9. cauldronofevil | Reply

    “FP to introduce new information into the game is also a means of showing the players they can actually do that. A lot of players had the experience that they get shot down if they try introducing anything, so giving them a resource to do it is a way of negating that. Of course a good GM allows it anyway, but if they didn’t have a good one in the past, it’s a good fix. ”

    I think this is the heart of the matter. The idea that you can mechanically ‘force’ players to roleplay and ‘force’ GM’s to recognize their roleplaying.

    I don’t think this can happen mechanically and even if it could, I’m pretty sure it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

    It seems like these games will ‘weed out’ the casual player, the tactitian, the butt-kicker and the rest and really filter the game down to only the actor/storyteller.

    And it seems like that’s what they are going for.

    But I’ve always found that games are more fun if there is a mix of different playing styles and that a good GM can keep them all occupied in different ways.

    And the stories of how players that don’t have my styles is always amusing.

    So ultimately, I think these types of games are ultimately limiting the nature and hobby of roleplaying rather than expanding the definition to include more and more people.

    Awesome post!

  10. cauldronofevil | Reply

    So the question on my mind is – INSTEAD of trying use game mechanics to force better roleplaying/GMing.

    What can we do to train better GMs? GMs who DO respond to improvisational narrative control. ‘Cool’ GMs?

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