This is a post about gaming – and tennis – but mostly about gaming. I promise.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been thinking a lot (too much, it’s become an obsession) about gaming as math problem. Or, I suppose, more specifically, the games as math problems. I think this really stems from playing too many games in the last twenty years where “system mastery” was a part of the design. When I look back at everything from “Aberrant Math” to the wilds of 3.5 character optimization (and 4E’s slavish devotion to an incredibly flawed principle of balance) I am left to realize that I’ve strayed so far from what I actually enjoy in gaming that I’m not really sure how to get back.
Here’s a thought.
This shared conversation with myself came about while watching the Australian Open (tennis) and listening to the commentators talk while translating the match/commentary into game –speak in my head (which happens to me all the time – I’m a dork, what can I tell you). I was watching Maria Sharapova (world #4) play Petra Kvitova (world #2) in the semi-finals as all this really coalesced in my head.
The thing is, the number 2 player in the world versus the number 4 player in the world shouldn’t be that big a difference, right? They both play near the top of their sport, they are both clearly skilled, and in terms of actual on-court experience, the number 4 had an edge in this case. Also, the last time these two played on a big stage was the final of last year’s Wimbledon and 2 beat 4. If you quantify these two with game stats though, they are probably really close. Obviously, the game chosen to model these two might offer different sets of in-game traits to model “tennis player” but whatever the measure, you assume the two are close.
More than likely, in most games though, presuming all went according to statistical averages, you assume the player with the “higher” scores will win. Assuming that the dice are rolling for one over the other that particular day, well, that player will likely win because they are so close. In my favorite game, Amber, it is the accepted condition that the number 2 player will always beat the number 4 player (all things being equal). Of course, that all things equal part is important. I think what made Amber really work for me (beyond being diceless) is the fact that player skill does matter just as much as character build.
I want the narrative component of my gaming experiences to be as valuable as the mechanical. Maybe it doesn’t need more emphasis, but is needs to be as valuable. Thinking about those tennis players, I remember the commentator saying something like, “well, you know they’re both in excellent shape, and the play the same style, so it may come down to sheer will.” Gaming systems are bad at that last part (by design). It’s hard for players to “get involved” to the level of impacting the in-game outcomes beyond certain prescribed choices (spend an action point to X). And those “other” variables – like sheer will – really matter to me at the gaming table.
On that particular day, the #4 beat the #2… and then went on to get slaughtered in the final – it was brutal – by the #3 player. What happened? What was so different from one match to the next that players so closely ranked had such disparate outcomes? What happened to that willpower to win that got her through the first match and not the second?
I’m still struggling with questions like this. I’m still struggling with how to represent what I want to see represented at the game table when I sit down to run a game. I have my own tricks, my own ways of making this kind of thing happen in games I run – and I’m sure other GMs do too – and they have nothing to do with the rules. But I’m still struggling with how to make the game less about the math and more about the play.
I took a short hiatus from working on my diceless game for this reason. I realized that I was trying to create a diceless game that gave players meaningful choices during hero creation (and during play) but that I was so concerned with having “rules” that what I was writing was a diceless math problem that left little room for narrative impact/interpretation.
The game is still stewing in my mind and today marks my effort to get back into the writing but this realization of how difficult it is to balance the competing aspects of narrative function and mechanical limitation was telling – and stunning – considering my other gaming experience.
I still think I’m playing the wrong games. I enjoy Pathfinder, and Dragon Age, and Savage Worlds, etc… but I feel like I need something different to work different gaming muscles. The problem is – most of the other stuff I’ve tried , I like less (like FATE). So it’s back to the drawing board and back to trying to figure out how to balance the character and the player at the table. One on One.