Coming to Theory: A few thoughts

I am often skeptical of “theory” when it comes to gaming. While I agree that there is an art and a science to running a good game, the variety of what constitutes a good game and the ways to achieve that seem to be far more rooted in individual preference and group-based communication principles than game design…

That said, I am also fascinated by the variety of games in existence and the attempts to parse out the endless variety of “what happens at the table” into thoughtful mechanics. While I sometimes struggle with some of the more radical approaches to “story game,” I also find many of these creations to be overwhelmingly awesome in terms of what they are trying to accomplish.

It’s also fair to say that after more than 30 years as a gamer, I have only dabbled in design and find that it’s only in the last 5 years or so that I’m finding my way toward wanting to understand the hobby more through that lens. Going back to the beginnings of my blogging efforts, I wrote about my difficulty with the way attributes were represented in games and between 4th Edition D&D and Mutants and Masterminds I really struggled with the whole “RPG as Math Problem” question. I think the roots of this issue for me go back to John Wick’s series of game design journals when he set out to create Orkworld. I wish I could find links to those online somewhere still – they were some excellent work to consider for a person just starting to interrogate the hobby in new ways. My real awakening as a gamer came with the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. Amber taught me two things that have always stuck with me as being fundamental to a “good” game.

1. Player (and GM – though that is often easier to get) investment is more valuable to a good game experience than any system of rules or set of character options.

2. A small set of interesting (and largely freeform) options is equally – if not more – powerful for creating characters that players are deeply invested in and want to really experience.

Of course, these two points open up whole other volumes of questions. Why, with the groups I’ve played with, does Amber create such strong investment? Is it my passion as a GM when I introduce new people to the system/world? Is it the ridiculous ease with which new players can feel as accomplished as old hands due to the simplicity of the game system? Is it the epic power level combined with a freedom to create a character that just fits what you want without worrying too much about the numbers?

Also, as you can see from my notations above… my experiences with Amber have led me to a place where I find that the primary point of investment for players is their characters. This means creating characters that players are really happy with strikes me as being the first and most important inroad to getting buy-in with a game/campaign. As if it were always that easy, right? I suppose that this was also driven home to me the last time I played Pathfinder and I realized that having the option to swap out one of the halfling’s racial abilities to allow my halfling to have a 30′ speed made all the difference in convincing me to play a halfling. I love halflings but mechanically I have often felt compromised by playing one. To have such a simple freedom presented to me over what is – probably to many players – a minor mechanical difference just allowed me to engage the halfling in a new way mentally. My point is not that all halflings should move 30′ (they should!) from a balance perspective or that this mechanical change is the be all and end all of playing a halfling. My point is that a small change led me to a new perspective – mainly based around the fact that I could now mechanically choose to build the character I wanted (and without house-ruling).

As I ruminate on this, I find myself being pushed toward several other questions and attempts at personal answers. I won’t go too deep on any of these yet but I figure it’s worth putting out there to possibly begin some discussion.

1. I’m fascinated by the experiments in some games that work off the principle of allowing the play group to completely design the game world (or primarily design the game world) along with the GM. Again, I hearken back to the lesson of Amber. The game world is very well-defined and character options are admittedly few (you are most likely an Amberite or a Lord of Chaos) but within those bounds you have nearly unlimited freedom to engage your own imagination. Think of it as reversing the lamentation of the genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Instead of “phenomenal cosmic power – itty bitty little living space” it’s more, “boundless realms of imagination – highly bounded initial setting design.” Houses of the Blooded also does this well – with it’s concept of the Ven (that’s what you play – a Ven – there really aren’t other character options) but everything about how you structure your stories, the way the domains interact, all of it, is done in such a way as to create this feeling of wide open wonder that players can fill in with their own imaginations.

2. Heavy meta-plot is less effective than heavily implied metaplot(s).

3. The rules should get out of the way but still be present as powerful guides to play. Amber is a stark and startling case here. As a diceless game – with no “randomizer” to speak of, the game is very easy to play, creates caution and bravado in equal measure, and refocuses the action of the game off of combat as a primary solution to problems (not to say that there isn’t awesome combat in Amber, it is just approached differently). Ultimately, though, the difficulty here lies in the fact that the game requires the players and the GM to be very Active participants because otherwise it is all too easy to simply declare, “Higher Warfare? You die.” And that loses both the spirit and the joy of the game, which is alluded to and written about in numerous ways throughout the text.

4. I’m not so much interested in What players/characters do at the table (in-game) as Why they do those things. For instance, in Dungeon World, there is an attempt to take the standard “actions” that we often find players doing over and over in games (attacking, making knowledge checks, jumping over cliffs) and turning them into highly categorized “Moves.” D&D 4e also embraced this “What players/characters DO” idea in their attempt to create Roles that helped party members fill a niche like Defender or Leader or Striker. But I find that I’m less interested in the actual action a character takes and far more interested in what is motivating that action/what outcomes they are hoping for. This is a thought I hope to explore more very soon.

5. This one is personal – not really a tenant of good design or in any way necessary, it just appeals to me… but I like it when the writers of a game talk to me through their writing. The author’s/designers voice is very strong in early D&D and disappears more and more through the editions. In Amber, the writers are constantly talking to me about what is going on behind the rules. In many of the best indie games I read, that author’s voice conveying nuances of the game is something I love to have in my mind as I’m reading.

This is long. I want to come back to some of these thoughts and explore them in more detail. For now, I’d love to hear what any of you think.

As always, thanks for reading.

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