Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Mind of the Mentat

My wife's at yoga this morning (I went last night and I'm still aching) so I took my morning constitutional down to the coffee shop and local game store to unwind a little in the sunshine, as well as getting my daily doses of caffeine and gaming. good.

Anyway, I observed the standard gaming group gathered around a table at Gary's (6 to 8 individuals of varying ages...I didn't bother counting) playing some RPG or other. I'm not actually sure what game they were playing...possibly Pathfinder, possibly 4th edition, possibly something completely different. I didn't see any books on the table, just lots of notes, screens, stat cards. The GM had a fairly solid screen nicely illustrated on one side and covered in

[sorry...interrupted by beagles scratching at the front door. They didn't want to come in, they wanted me to go OUT with them. In a little bit, beagles...]

...covered in the arcane gaming minutia I recall so well from my own days as an AD&D dungeon master, though with some weird editions (food and lodging prices need to be on a screen?). In addition to the screen, the dude had a humongous stack of pages, bound on rings from which he was conducting the action on the battle map (it appears he'd printed or copied the game book so as to not ruin the binding of the original through constant S&H).

No one had a lap top today (though I've seen those down at game tables); the gentlefolk appeared a little older than the tweeting generation. They DID have numerous cheat sheets/score cards/laminated stat documents from which they would consult as they rolled dice and fought what I believe was a single minotaur. There were miniatures on the table.

I was probably only in the store ten minutes or so. I came in sometime in the middle of the encounter, and left shortly after it was finished (the GM announced, "sushi's on the dinner's dead!).

To me, it seemed like an awful lot of work for a paltry amount of fun.

But thinking back to my own DM days...especially running games as a "Storyteller" for the various World of Darkness games, isn't that kind of par for the course? Certainly, I never used a computer in my games (though for WoD I got to the point where I'd just use the "Random" feature on my calculator, rather than rolling handfuls of ten-sided dice). As the GM/DM for several different RPGs, all with different rule sets, I had to keep a surprising amount of info in my brain...not to mention the adventure scenario info (if there was one). It was absolutely necessary if one wanted a smooth running game. Which of course I did, being a bit of a perfectionist/show-off in this regard.

Being a competent gamer at the table meant being a human computer.

Now, of course, people can and do take their laptops to the game table, though I don't think I could personally stand to see it at my table...if I caught anyone playing solitaire I'd probably go completely ballistic. I much prefer players' eyes on the face-to-face environment I like to make eye contact with players, I like to pitch my voice and cadence in ways that communicate certain emotions, I tend to be very expressive with my body language (from sitting absolutely still to gesticulating wildly)...all in aid of involving the players in the game.

Yet having the computer (or the print-outs or the note-cards or whatever) is totally valid with many of today's games...just because they are so damn huge and complex! Well, not too complex rules-wise (if they were overly complex rules-wise people really wouldn't play them)...but the sheer amount of minutia of information is crazy, crazy.

Even if the game may model things competently, using excellent systems, there's no guarantee of elegance or intuitiveness or (to use a computer term) "user-friendliness" in the rules. Forget all my things I've said before about hating skill systems for a moment. Even if I liked skill systems, once one starts adding circumstantial modifiers to a game system, you've only got three choices as a GM:

A) wing it ("fly by the seat of your pants")
B) slow down game play to a crawl ("to get it right")
C) develop the mind of the Mentat

Option B is of course the lousiest choice, as it almost always kills long-term game play (most players get tired of GMs page-flipping every time a new rule comes up). Yet, perhaps this is one of the things that has contributed to the death of long-term group play (I'm not suggesting it is THE reason, as I know there are plenty of other distractions in our busy 21st century lives).

The mind of the Mentat (please reference Herbert's DUNE for more info), is probably something that develops over time as a GM walks the balancing act between Options A and B. No one just springs up as a full-fledged rules guru from one (or two or three) reads of the rule book. And because it takes so long to develop the mentat mind for even a single game, this could be one of the reasons some GMs are so damn stubborn about only playing one particular game or other..."I only run D&D," or "I only play HERO system," or "I adapt everything to GURPS."

They know it backwards and forwards. Even when they don't know a particular rule, they know immediately where to reference it in the book without the need of the index or table of contents. For some game systems, this was (to me) the worst aspect of a new edition...if rules got moved around to different chapters.

The Mentat mind...and I suppose coffee (or Coke) is out juice of Sapho. It certainly isn't booze (I've lost more than a couple "Mentat calculations" to wine consumption I'm afraid).

Anyway, here's the thing, or rather the things: while players certainly appreciate the "mentat GM" (the "wing it" GM generally only works long-term amongst established and fairly lax game know, "buddies?"), it takes time and effort to become a Mentat in ANY game system (another reason why GMs become so "brand loyal" to genre-crossing systems: Tri-Stat, D20, even Palladium). Time and effort that not everyone is willing to spend. Which leads to games sitting on shop shelves gathering dust until they get picked up by someone who just lets it sit and gather dust on their own book shelf.

That doesn't grow the industry.

The OTHER thing is this: do we want to encourage ourselves to become human computers...players or GMs? Because the more extensive game systems practically require this. Just saw a copy of 6th edition Champions on the shelf today and it was every bit the weighty tome that 4th edition was. If everything is covered by the rules, how much room does that leave for imagination? 'Cause imagination...and freedom of action in an imaginary world...are the things offered by RPGs that are NOT offered by static video games (even video games with on-going supplemental World of Warcraft).

As I embark on my new 64 page space opera game, this is something I'm keeping in mind. I want the rules easy enough to manage that they don't require the Mentat mind to play them. I want them to be a game ANYone can pick up and play, easily, and with plenty of room for growth and imaginative input.


  1. I thought you'd posted a Mentat class for me... ;-)

  2. @stuart I'm still laughing 5minutes later.

    @jb readers so demanding, eh? :)

  3. @ Stu: Mmm...B/X Dune. That might be fun.

    @ Norm: Oh yeah!
    ; )