Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

It's How You Play the Game

I've had some mixed results when trying to play some of the recent wave of indie RPGs. I will talk about the games and what happened when I played them later on, but I want to start with a notion I have about how you play a game.

There's a cool little card game that you may know called Bang! It's silly and fun and evokes spaghetti westerns on purpose. It also serves as a great illustration about my whole deal regarding how you play a game.

There is minimal strategy in Bang! You get a role which dictate which other characters have to die in order for you to win. So you have to figure out who is who and who you want to shoot. But beyond that, you draw cards, then you use them to unleash mayhem on one and all. The game was designed to be played fast, loose, and without a lot of thinking about stuff.

So I played the game and loved it, and got a copy for myself. Then I brought it to a regular board gaming group that I had at the time. They didn't get it. These guys were all serious gamers who wanted to be able to make and execute a grand plan. They couldn't handle a game where each turn you take the cards you are given and use them as best you can as quickly as you can. They did not like the game.

Then I brought it to a family gathering, thinking that a light, quick game would be just the thing to play with my parents. Wrong again. My father, who is a long-time player of traditional card games, couldn't grasp the concept that you are not trying to collect anything or get rid of anything. He wanted to equate the game to Oh Hell, or at least to UNO. He didn't like the game.

I use this as an example, because it is a simple illustration of a common primciple. A designer makes certain assumptions when creating a game. He forms an idea in his head about how the players will behave during the game. These ideas might be based on his own play group, or they might be based on idealized thoughts of the perfect play group. The important thing is that the assumptions are there. And if the people playing the game don't conform to the assumptions, the game will not be fun--at least not fun in the way that it was designed to be.

Some (but still very few) games try to solve this problem by providing detailed examples of play, usually in the form of a transcript of a fictional game. This is an essetial part of writing good instructions for a game, and one for which I can find no excuse not to include. But the problem is that not all players read the rules. It's usually one person trying to tell the others how it's done.

Another problem (and one that unusual RPGs often have) is that the game is similar enough to some other game that the players are familiar with that they assume it plays the same. This is a killer. I have spent most of my gaming career assuming that every RPG was to be played exactly the same as every other and that rules sets just describe how the actions are resolved. It's very hard to teach old gamers new tricks (harder than dogs by a long shot in my experience). I have yet to discover a great way to teach experienced players to play a game the way you want them to. It's a topic that I'm sure I'll get much more into as time goes on.


Anonymous Judd said...

This reminds me of when I talked to a buddy of mine about Dogs in the Vineyard. I was describing the social mechanics and he got really uncomfortable.

This is the older gamer who first got me to GM, my gaming Qui-Gon Jin, my mentor.

He was really uncomfortable with the dice and the role-playing being so closely linked.

"What if the dice say I failed but I role-play really well?"


Wednesday, May 11, 2005 9:01:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

That is interesting.

I remember in the first edition of Paladium, Kevin S. makes a big deal about how there aren't mechanics for social stuff. He says that those aspects of the character should simply be role-played.

At the time I thought that was a silly rule: what if I want to play a character that is smarter or more persuasive than I am?

The old-school thinking of this type seems to me to indicate someone who wanted player empowerment before that concept had really appeared in games. Like not making players roll for social stuff would give them control over how they play their character. Of course, a bad (or even a misguided) GM then has nothing in the rules stopping him from stomping all over any social interaction in the SIS.

There seems to have been this notion in some old-school games that you should be able to role-play your way out of any situation. Which seems like totally misguided player empowerment to me. So maybe your friend is afraid that if you tie the role-playing to the mechanics, he'll lose the empowerment he perceived in the old paradigm?

Thursday, May 12, 2005 8:50:00 AM  
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