Recently, I read through Dungeon World. It’s a really nifty game, and one that I could see myself running at some point. I’d make some changes – the game is too prescriptive in some ways – but the core of the game is just plain interesting. It does a lot of the things that FATE style games do but in my opinion does them better. I’m planning a full review but really, Dungeon World isn’t the focus of this post, just the inspiration.
I find a lot of modern systems that take a stab at building ‘storytelling’ into the mechanics to be fascinating but I often find that for all their good intentions that just can’t seem to help themselves from slipping back into mechanics in strange places.
But the more I think about this, the more I start to see that my problem may not be the mechanical virtues or failings of these games. I think it’s back to play-style and trying to find a group to match play-style rather than a system that makes me feel good with that play style. I can run full scale combat with Amber DRPG and I can run political intrigue with D&D 2e. I don’t care so much what system I’m playing or what it emphasizes or what behavior it gives incentives for. I care about what my players and I are going for when we sit down at the table together. Because you can’t legislate “giving a shit” with rules.
Let’s think about a common fiddly bit with some modern games – the idea of Complications (call them what you will, the concept is pretty much the same). I think of Fight Club and when Ed Norton’s character goes to work with his face all messed up. You know PCs don’t get bruises? It’s like how no one in the Star Wars universe ever uses the bathroom, PCs just don’t get bruises. Because why should they? If I showed up to work all messed up like Ed Norton at my job I’d have some explaining to do (well, if I did it more than once… I work with great people so they’d probably just be worried about me the first time). But yeah, in a superhero game getting a complication is accepting a bad result to get a better result later. But if you’re teenage superhero is getting into fights, how often would the typical GM say, “well, the villain hit you in the face with a giant mechanical claw so you now have this huge purple bruise on your face… good luck going to school tomorrow.” That doesn’t happen because we all know that “school” happens off-camera. School is where you have your relationship drama with girls who were totally out of your league before you got super powers. School is not where you have to spend all day explaining to teachers that your father doesn’t beat you.
Because that’s boring right?
But what if it wasn’t? What if that bruise mattered because of how it complicated your PCs life? What if you are a business man who has to face down your board with a broken face? What if… What do you do? I thought of this as I was making a Shadowrun character who has a day job and I thought to myself, what happens when this guy comes to work after a ‘run and he’s all bruised up and stuff? But Shadowrun PCs don’t get bruises. Well, they might, but since there are no mechanics for it, no incentives or points, what player in their right mind would let a GM just run rampant by declaring, “hey, how are you going to explain those bruises at work?”
I like games that have action and consequence. I like the idea that a ‘runner with a day job might go out of their way to protect their face. I like the idea that townsfolk might freak out when your adventurers come to market dressed in their gore-splattered robes they’ve never properly cleaned the Roper guts off of. Maybe it’s just me but that sort of thing isn’t a burden for me, it’s what makes gaming the most fun – when the world reacts to my character in realistic ways. Because if I go into town covered in gore and the townsfolk don’t react… then I’m going to worry. What has happened to them that they are so jaded? That’s probably something I need to worry about.
I’ve played a lot of games with a lot of players who would be totally okay (if a bit confused) if I started pulling some of that kind of thing on them. But I’ve met a lot more players who would openly rebel at that sort of thing… Like quit the game rebel. And overall, I’m looking for more of the first kind. Maybe that’s why I like Diceless games, the social contract at the table is different right from the get go.
But in the end I’ve been taking my time away from GMing to really think about what I want out of a game and I think that the game, for me, is almost superfluous. What I care about is the group. Because the group isn’t about mechanics, it’s about relationships.