Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

No Game The Same

Posted by Nathan P. on May 27, 2008

I think there may be a fallacy in some of our conventional wisdom, fellow theory nerds.

So we’re all familiar with the idea that, the farther away a given group is from the designer along the personal-experience-with chain, the less likely it is that they will play a game in the way that the designer intended it. There’s a degradation of experience. And the response to this idea is that rules, if well-designed AND well-explained, will make this degradation less. If I play Burning Wheel with Luke, I’m getting the experience as he intends it; if I then go and play Burning Wheel with other people, they’re getting it “second-hand” through me, but the rules are good enough and the book is well-written enough that the experience should be pretty close; and so on.

However, as a subjective experience, no game is ever played the same twice by strict application of the rules. I mean, even when playing my own games, there’s some nights when some parts of the rules just aren’t emphasized, or don’t apply, or I forget them, or whatever. Rules application in play is subject to so many factors that I think many (not all, or even most, but many) games never see their rules applied consistently across groups and across time.

This train of thought leads me to two conclusions. First, the growth of this concept that you can play a roleplaying game simply by applying the mechanics. I’ve played in games like this, hell I’ve run games like this, particularly oneshots, where the game consists of make characters, set a scene, identify a conflict, resolve the conflict, repeat until mechanical triggers change your characters stats, and so on. I’ve left some of these games feeling unsatisfied, because I wasn’t doing any roleplaying. To be more specific, I was all the way out on one end of the participant-audience spectrum (either end, doesn’t matter).* I think this is a trend, like fortune-at-the-end stakes setting, that we’ll all get over soon enough, but I think the origin of the trend can be traced back to what I’m talking about in the first paragraph.

Anyway, the more interesting thought that I’m having is that a well-designed game isn’t aimed at enabling any group to apply the rules in the same way that the designer does. A well-designed game is aimed at enabling any group to share the experience that the designer wants the players of the game to share. But – and here’s the tricky bit – enabling an experience may require actually placing different and non-complimentary sets of procedures in your game, depending on how accessible you want the game to be to players of different playstyles and backgrounds. This is something that Jonathan Walton, among others, is aware of (whether he knows it or not). Read his blog with this in mind, and there’s some really exciting things that he’s doing.

So, in concrete terms, Annalise is being written with a guide to how different people should approach the book. I don’t care whether people apply the rules in exactly the right order, but I DO care about whether they have a rockin’ time making a gothic horror story with their friends. Cuz in the end, that’s what matters.

*This is referring to how I define roleplaying, way back in this post from the early days


6 Responses to “No Game The Same”

  1. Jonathan Walton said

    Thanks for the shout-out. I was just talking about this issue over here, interestingly enough. I also think this is an important post-Forge realization for indie roleplaying, focusing on how things actually get implemented in play, instead of narrowly looking at how rules might work in an abstract, ideal case.

    Also, I’ve been thinking about writing Geiger Counter in such a way that it’s easier for local groups to hack it to do what they want, instead of simply emphasizing certain rules over others. I’m gonna include a few hacks even, to illustrate how you can adapt the game to do other things.

  2. […] and Paul Weigh In Local recluse Nathan Paoletta has weighed in on one of the major issues current occupying indie roleplaying’s awkward adolescence: dealing […]

  3. Nathan P. said

    Huh. Didn’t know that that forum existed (what with me being a recluse, and everything). Thanks for the link!

    Yeh, I’m (planning to) do that with Annalise as well. But I’m also writing the text in a non-linear way, with a guide to which order to read it for certain play backgrounds. Hopefully it’ll support people who approach the text from other play cultures.

  4. Tommi said

    Personally I find it bizarre that people should not play the game in whatever way they find enjoyable, be that how the designer intended or not. Give me a game that every group alters a bit before playing and has great time with and I will call it an excellent game, design-wise. Even if the alterations change the fundamental core of the game.

    (This all is not to say that game that strongly communicate a way to play are a bad idea, somehow. I just happen to think there are other valid avenues of design.)

  5. Hey Tommi,

    Righto, good comment. I’ll just say that part of the problem that I’ve experienced and heard other people experience isn’t that they change the game such that they have fun, but rather that they try really hard not to change the game, and don’t have fun as a result.

    That said, Jonathan (and others) are certainly pursuing avenues that encourage on-the-table, on-the-fly hacking of a game to fit the play culture of that particular group; I personally am poking at methods to make the “barrier to entry” of playing a fairly complex game as low as possible, based on the play history of the person reading or teaching the text.

  6. […] No Game The Same […]

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