09 February, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo Redux] 5: Closed Games

Today it could be argued that I'm looking at a game convention or restraint rather than a mechanism. But, if you follow the "Big Model" of game design theory, then the social contract and human expectation of a game environment are just as intrinsic to the experience as the rules inked into the books defining setting and system. In this way, the concept of today's topic is a valid mechanism within the play experience.

I was also reading through "Hot War" last night (the award winning follow-up to Cold City), and it mentioned the notion of today's discussion within the text of the rules. So that makes it an even more legitimate point of mechanism discussion.

The idea is the Closed Game.

When I was in high school I remember there being two or three groups of students in higher years than me, they were running D&D campaigns that seemed to draw a regularly weekly crowd...week after week for months on end. I'd overhear tales of the player's adventures and the characters exploration of strange places.  There seemed to be no end to the campaign being played, adventure continued for the sake of continuing the adventure. This is an "Open Game".

I heard about other epic "Open Games" later when my gaming circles expanded into the Australian east-coast convention circuit (notably Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne). The guys at "Lions Fodder" (a christian gaming club based out of a church in western Sydney), who had been running a game in the same fantasy setting for 20 years...characters had come and gone, some retired as storekeepers or local barons, others killed and rendered a part of local folklore.

This is what I thought most people aspired to in roleplaying.

I thought that convention one-shots were an anomaly. I thought that a game which finished after a single session or two was a failure. But these days, it seems that almost every second indie-game is designed to be played as a one-off event. You quickly get to the meat of a situation, you resolve it in a few hours and you're done...next week you move on to a brand new game with brand new characters in a brand new world. This is a "Closed Game"; it has a definite start point and a definite end point. You may not know where things will end, but you know that in a few hours it will end.

In our current gaming group, we divide GM duties between two members. I run 4 weeks, then Daniel runs 4 weeks. My 4 week sessions are intended as closed games, a self contained storyline with 4 episodes. Daniel intends to run his sessions as open games, 4 episodes which will continue with a further four when it's his turn to GM again.

I like action movies, stories where the pace doesn't let up....and if it does, it's only to reload or maybe explore a bit of character motivation for why the action is happening. These aren't the only movies I like, but as I sit in front of the DVD wall in our home theatre, at least half of the collection could be described as action. If it's not an action movie, I like stories that twist and turn and keep you thinking (or at least engaged); I'm not particularly fond of stories where the protagonist just waits around hoping something will happen. I like to keep things moving.

The Closed Game has a self-imposed time limit. If it's being played at a convention, then that time limit is a rigid thing (perhaps a 3 hour slot); if it's being played at home he specific limit is a bit more vague but it's still restricted to a set number of sessions each a few hours long. In a Closed Game you need to resolve enough events in that time-frame to get a satisfying conclusion. This usually means the pace is faster than an open game, things are always happening (for the good or for the bad).

With the right players, closed games have a life of their own. They are born with a scream, they mature into a complex organism quickly, and degrade gracefully before reaching a natural conclusion. Those who take part  in a closed game see a full story arc in a single session (or short series of sessions). Many of the "open games" I've seen over the years can't claim the same life cycle, they typically seem to build slowly to draw out the potential length of the campaign, it takes many sessions to reach some kind of temporary climax, and they often fizzle out before real momentum has been achieved, or degrade horrifically.

I should point out that games aren't the only things with a closed and open switch. TV series do the same thing. In my opinion, Supernatural was a great TV show for the first five seasons (the original length of the closed story arc), then it got renewed further and has become an open-ended series...after that tight 5 seasons, things have just gotten silly to justify producing more content. I'd have rather it stayed at 5 and ended there. Babylon 5 was good for it's closed run...most of the Star Trek series wee good for their 7 year runs (I'll get to Voyager in the "Cons" section).

Once a closed game is over, it's over.

Closed games seem to have a tendency to leave story lines hanging and unresolved. If you have a tightly woven net of five interplaying story lines that all lead to a dramatic conclusion, then you can be fairly certain that one or two of those story lines will be followed and just as many will be picked up on but never satisfyingly concluded. Movies do much the same thing, so it's not just a flaw with the closed game but perhaps the concept of closed narrative in general. It takes some good writing, good forethought or clever manipulation of the events underway to really pull together the disparate threads of narrative into a well tied conclusion. I've seen plenty of less experienced GMs (and movie directors) fail dismally at this.

(Here's where I take a quick swing at Star Trek Voyager, if you know that you've got 7 seasons to bring your protagonists home, why spend 6 seasons getting them a fraction of the way back; often using Deux Ex Machina to jump the crew thousands of lightyears home in a single episode. And then have everyone "magically" get home in the final couple of episodes, travelling tens of thousands of lightyears just so your can cram the result of the journey into the series without needing to add a movie at the end. When running a closed narrative, know your constraints.)

Closed games also suffer from the notion that characters often don't get as well defined as we might like them. Story focuses on the events and scenes, and while the characters may drive these through their actions; we often end up with two dimensional heroes and villains because we don't get the chance to fully explore them from a range or perspectives.

Another issue I've faced with closed games is the idea that once the story is over, there is less motivation for players to come back for more play. An open session ending on a cliffhanger will draw players back to find out what happened; while a closed session has a higher likelihood of participants saying "I've done my story, what else is out there...I might come back once you've finished off a few more stories, when you get back to something that really interests me".


I like closed games, but can certainly see why they aren't for everyone. I think that's one of the reasons why our group has taken a good balance of closed and open sessions; story lines get resolved in the closed games, and character development really gets fleshed out in the open ones.

I think another reason why I like closed games is because I have so many games on my shelf that I have to run them in a closed format in order to get through them all.

As a final note, if you really want to open up a closed game, you can always do what they do in the movies...run a sequel.

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