12 January, 2015

Diversity of Narrative

I think there is a simple reason reason traps work so well in Dungeons and Dragons (and now in so many other games of the OSR). That is simply a diversity of narrative. Before we started getting into the angsty emotional cataharsis games of the 1990s (and later), our games were basically about fighting things and taking their stuff. Now the genre is occasionally pinned with the title of "Murderhobo". Sure I'm overgeneralising here, but the point still stands.

Traps allowed players who didn't want to engage in combat, claim stuff of their own. It's almost as though...

...the "fighter" just gets on with the fighting because that's what they do.
...the "cleric" fights because that's what their god tells them to do (either smite evil, or do evil), and they heal people after fights.
...the "mage" uses magical spells to fight, and occasionally do other funky stuff.
...the thief avoids fights, and instead picks locks, disarms traps and steals stuff. But hey, let's throw in a backstab ability in case the thief wants to fight.

This reminds me of the reason why my wife HATES Rifts with a passion. Twenty/twenty-five years ago, I thought it was awesome in it's over the top "kitchen-sinkness". I'd tell players they could literally play anything they could imagine in that game. But in over a decade, I haven't played Rifts once. She had a GM who allowed her group to play anything, then just ran then through a series of fights. You face down one menace through violence, only to meet the next one. If you try diplomacy and fail, they pull their guns and a new fight breaks out... if you succeed on the diplomacy, someone else ambushes you, they take out the person you were taking to and this new person hates you because you were talking to one of their enemies. There's only so much fight that you can go through before the story gets boring and things just start to get on your nerves. Actually, by the time you've gotten to that point I'd suggest that it isn't even a story any more.

(I know that in some of my early attempts at running a game, I was prone to doing things like this as well.)

Traps are good, they break things up.

Allowing a variety of action and tension sources can break things up even more. Tat's one of the reasons why I like robust game systems, and when I say robust I mean that they can be used in a variety of ways, they can be twisted to reflect a variety of different scenes, and they don't break.

It's probably one of the reasons why I Fudge and Fate have done so well over recent years, and one of the reasons why many of the tightly focused games of the early 2000s have simply vanished in the quicksand of "hot new products". Fudge and Fate don't try to do "one particular thing well", and therefore their stories can be more diverse and interesting.  Their diversity allows them to adapt and remain relevant, the core system is robust. Other "generic" systems such as Rifts or GURPS, I've found to be less robust because they claim versatility but are actually quite brittle and break easily when pushed into areas where they weren't intended.

Some call those gaps in system address "the fruitful void", I call it lazy design, or even bad design (but those game systems that acknowledge their holes and offer ways to move forward are certainly in a better class according to my rankings).

Why am I writing this?

The answer is pretty simple. I've been looking at my game designs and contemplating whether I would like them as a consumer if I weren't the one who had written them. I like games that are capable of engaging a wide range of stories, but push an agenda in some way. One game might handle all sorts of things, but you can do awesome kick-ass things when you pull out the martial arts rules (maybe not resulting in more damage, but just pulling out awesome stunts that can form the basis of anecdotes later), one game might do all sorts of combat adequately but it might really shine when it comes to investigation, or maybe invoking a feeling of dread.

Too narrow, and the game doesn't hold my attention, or I start looking for ways to test its boundaries. Too wide, and the game lacks focus or ends up adrift.

I look at my game FUBAR (with 3000 odd downloads so far from various sources), it was designed to tell a dramatic tale of open-ended revenge. You can do almost anything with it, but it has elements in it that are very cinematic and others which restrain the flow of the story to a distinct conclusion that might be completely unknown at the start of play. I like FUBAR, I'm pretty proud of it. It hasn't made me much money at all (with a free set of core rules, and a couple of low priced supplements), but it's made people happy at conventions and that's great.

I look at Ghost City Raiders, and see a very different type of game. Inspired by board-games (like Warhammer Quest), and various miniature wargames (like Mordheim, Freebooter's Fate, and Confrontation). It takes the path that I've liked in recent miniature games, where points are earned for objectives, not for kills. Like miniature wargame campaigns it tells very specific stories by stringing together a series of conflict scenarios, where all of those scenarios are capable of devolving into combat, but most can be won through investigation, exploration, or other means. Arguably it's not a very robust system, but it can handle a fairly wide scope of action, and it does combat quickly, efficiently and in a manner unlike most other game products I've seen. This game has done better for me financially, but hasn't been supported to the degree I originally intended. That should be remedied over the coming year with a series of new scenarios, new character types and some new ways to string one-off scenarios together into campaigns. I'm even thinking of putting together a boxed set for the game (through The Game Crafter).

I look at Tooth and Claw (and it's anime/8-bit styled offshoot, Voidstone Chronicles), Tooth and Claw has a great feel for such a small game, an in it's context it works. But there are a few crack in the core system, and these cracks become fissures when the game is pushed to a new setting and genre. I don't think the issues should be too hard to fix, and the first step has been admitting the existence of those issues.

All in all, a year of support, redesign, and rejuvenation for existing products...and drawing, lots of drawing.

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