My days are relatively boring, often quite similar to each other. I suspect this is the nature of human existence no matter what one’s culture, status, or geographical location…at least when one’s country isn’t at war or in the midst of a great social upheaval.
No, life is boring and that generally means things are going smoothly. There may be the occasional accident or drama or upset that occurs to “shake the tree” but boring is good and comfortable. Go to the daily grind (whatever that is for you), spend time with the family (no matter what “family” looks like), find something to eat on a regular (relatively speaking) basis, and indulge in the occasional vice (football watching and weekly role-playing, for example).
That’s LIFE, though…life as (one hopes) it should be: routine and comfortable. Most folks want something different in their fantasy role-playing.
At least, I do. I enjoy playing role-playing games but not for the simple escapist fantasy (or, I should say, not for that alone). Personally, I prefer there to be some OBJECTIVE to play; it’s not enough to imagine myself as a cool character in a strange place/time and occasionally roll a few dice. Maybe for some folks, that’s enough. Personally, I don’t see how that can sustain long-term interest.
Unfortunately, most RPGs provide no objective for play.
I went through a quick list of role-playing games, including only games that I owned and not counting different editions as different games (for example, only 1 D&D, 1 Vampire, 1 Shadowrun, even though I own 2 to 5 editions of each of these). The total number of RPGs totaled 60 (and as this is just off the top of my head; I’m sure I missed a few). Of these, at least 70% have no objective.
[and just as an aside, I own absolutely zero versions/editions/supplements of GURPS]
At least 70%...some of the ones I included as objectives might be a bit of a stretch. For example, Battle Tech has definite objectives of play (destroy all enemy mecha on the battlefield), but Mechwarrior does not (except as pertains to piloting mechs in combat missions). Since I combined these as ONE RPG on my list, it went into the “yes” column, though if one is just playing MW with spies or technicians (??) “objective” is pretty much undefined.
Here are some positive examples of what I’m talking about.
D&D has definite objectives of play. Characters travel to an adventure site (called a “dungeon,” created by a “Dungeon Master”) and look for treasure, while trying not to get killed in the process.
Everyone knows what they’re doing there, right?
Call of Cthulhu (and Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues) has a pretty well defined objective, too: characters have a mysterious situation (created by the GM) that needs to be investigated…hopefully without succumbing to death and/or insanity.
Shadowrun, Top Secret, and James Bond also have specific, concrete missions: characters are assigned a “mission” with “mission objectives” (pretty explicit, huh?) and get paid if and when they complete the mission. That’s about as clearly defined as it gets.
Even a “story game” like Sorcerer can have explicit objectives of play; in the case of Edwards’ game, play is about resolving the player designed “kicker” and in doing so, address a specific premise. That may be hoity-toity and abstract, but it’s still an objective.
Most RPGs, though...even the really slick, “well-designed” ones...are ridiculously ambiguous about what the hell players are supposed to do. “Characters are supposed to have adventures.” Um, what kind of adventures? “Anything you want, or anything the GM can imagine.”
That tells me nothing, pal.
White Wolf games (of which I’ve somehow managed to collect a great number: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Aberrant, Adventure!, Trinity) are some of the worst when it comes to this. “Create a story about vampires!” How exactly do I do that? “Have the players make vampire characters and then have the GM make an adventure!” About what, exactly? “Anything you want! The pain of losing humanity, the conflict between young and old, vigilante justice through the use of your vampiric powers…whatever!”
See, that’s bullshit. “Anything you want” or “Whatever” are extremely lazy choices of game design. It’s actually NOT making a choice. Your game is about vampires, sure. Vampires doing WHAT exactly? Anything you want? No, that’s stupid…give me a reason to play the f'ing game.
Games based on specific intellectual property tend to be equally stupid. ElfQuest is about elves. Elves doing what? Whatever you want. No, that’s not a useful answer. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (a game that I consider to be The Most Boring RPG Ever Written) is about “life in the Xenozoic Age.” What do your characters do? “Whatever they want.”
No, that’s stupid.
As a GM, I understand part of my responsibility is being creative; that’s part of what I sign up for when I take on the role of "Game Master." However, I need a framework to work within…and the players need expectations, too, besides “entertain me.” Watch the difference here:
D&D: Players create characters (as explained in rules); DM creates dungeon (as explained in rules). Players ask, “Have we heard of any dungeons ripe for plucking?” DM says, “As a matter of fact, you’ve come across info on just such a place.”
Ars Magica: Players create characters (as explained in rules); GM considers possible conflicts/antagonists (as SUGGESTED in rules). Players ask, “So what are going to do tonight?” GM asks, “What are your characters interested in?” Players say “Getting more magical power by spending ‘seasons’ experimenting and researching.” GM: “Okay, um…what are your non-magi characters doing?” Players: “Um, what is there for them to do.” GM: “Well, they can…um…well, there’s this baron who’s kind of a jerk…um…” Players: “So what? He knows better than to mess with the covenant house, and anyway, we’re not antagonizing him.” GM: “Um, you’ve heard about a dragon in the hills.” Players: “No way we’re going near it! Those things are dangerous and we don’t need treasure.” GM: “Ummm…well what do you want to do?” Players: “Hey, we agreed to play this stupid game; YOU entertain US.”
Most games without objective are like that: Rifts, Marvel, Castle Falkenstein, Over the Edge, The last is an example of a tasty little system with utterly nothing to do. Oh, excuse me: it has “wide open possibilities.”
Translation: no explicit objectives or direction for play.
I hate that. As a player I hate it, because I either end up bored or railroaded (or both) more often than not; as a GM I LOATHE it, because the author is giving you ammunition without a gun and telling you to go out and “do something.” Just providing “sample scenarios” or “adventure seeds” isn't enough. What is the objective of game play?
“To play vampires in the modern day.” Doing WHAT exactly? I can play vampires using GURPS or D20 or RISUS or Toon(!) for goodness sakes…what the hell do I need your book for? Mood? Pretty pictures?
“To play undead cowboys in a horror/fantasy Western.” Doing WHAT exactly? At least in Boot Hill, the gunfighting rules are quick and efficient.
“To defeat the Empire!...um, without treading on the toes of Luke Skywalker & Co.” How exactly am I supposed to do that? Just create random “situations” that may or may not have any rhyme or reason or consistency or pertinence to anything?
As I write/design my own games (slowly…oh so slowly) I try to keep in mind exactly what players and GMs are supposed to do and HOW they are supposed to do it. One of the complaints Josh had regarding my dinosaur game was he didn’t really know WHAT he was supposed to do in the game, even after reading the rules. And while I can say (in my defense) that a one-page micro-game doesn’t provide enough space to list an objective, I totally agree that it’s certainly more fun to play a game when you know exactly what you’re supposed to do IN the game.
I am really, really tired of lazy game design that simply assumes “Oh, GMs will know what to do with THIS.” Even if that’s true (and certainly not even experienced GMs have the time, energy, and/or creativity to craft adventures and sagas from scratch ALL the time)…EVEN IF it’s true, it’s still laziness on the part of the author. And it makes me want to chuck ALL these games out the freaking window. Give me something to do besides "make a cool character for a cool setting."
Adventure doesn't just happen, idiots. Ugh.