More intelligent conversation followed, though, when Tim (head honcho from Gary’s Games) showed up after his pizza party at Razzi’s (it was Tim’s B-day a couple days back). Tim follows my blog and as a fellow game designer, had some thoughts on the whole objectives thang I’ve been talking about lately. While I managed to bring him around to my way of thinking (more or less), we realized that part of the difficulty here is my use of the term “objective.”
So while yesterday’s post made a half-assed stab at what I mean when I use the term, I can see that it’s a problematic one as it gets all jumbled with “goals” and “mission objectives” and such.
The problem is, I can’t just say “I want games to be ABOUT SOMETHING” (which is kind of what I want to say) because all RPGs are “about something.”
Deadlands is about “undead cowboys and weird horror in the Old West.”
Ars Magica is about “a group of magi and their companions in Mythic Europe.”
Vampire the Masquerade is about “vampires hiding and surviving in a darker version of our current reality.”
Traveller (and many other space travel games) is about “dudes in space” with a particular setting (Terran Empire, specific aliens, whatever) built in.
See, all those games are about something. But they provide no BLUEPRINT for how the game gets played. That’s what I meant by “objectives of play.”
Here’s what they DO give you:
- Interesting character creation (everyone wants to play a neat character, right? Part of the joy of role-playing is the escapism in pretending to be someone else).
- Interesting systems, what we call rules or mechanics (designers feel the need to distinguish their product from others AND it’s nice to have nifty rules specific to the particular setting).
- Interesting and/or inspiring premise or setting (dinosaurs in the Hollow Earth! Thousand year old vampires partying at night clubs! Star-travelling inquisitors of an undying god-emperor rooting our demonic heretics threatening the stability of the Imperium!).
That’s not enough.
Nothing in Deadlands (or Hollow Earth Expedition or Vampire or Rifts or whatever) explains why the characters are together doing anything. Nothing explains what they’re supposed to do. Nothing explains to the GM how to facilitate game play. There are suggestions for players to “check with the GM to see if a character concept is acceptable.” There are “adventure ideas” for the GM. But for the most part, all you’ve got is a pick pile of pieces…possibly shiny and newfangled but not assembled…rather than an actual engine for doing anything.
And a pile of pieces may as well be a pile of shit.
Sure (to take the analogy a little further) RPGs may be “some assembly required” but the GOOD games (my judgment call, folks) have INSTRUCTIONS FOR ASSEMBLY.
For example, Moldvay’s Basic set explains how to make a dungeon: think of a scenario, draw a map, add specific challenges and treasures, stock random challenges and treasures (if desired).
Edwards’s Sorcerer explains how to create a story driven scenario using PCs demons and kickers and relationship charts and how to drive the story with bangs.
Weedin’s Horror Rules explains how to write a script (HR’s term for “adventure”) using mood, antagonists, chain of events, and cast of characters, all in a style that mimics classic horror/slasher films. It also explains how to run the game, drive the plot (using actual rule mechanics) and how to adapt different styles of play (ranging from humorous to heroic to PVP) to the game.
These are examples of well-designed games that provide more than just “pieces” for play. They actually provide what could be called “a complete game” unlike the majority of commercial RPGs on the market.
Let’s look at it from a player’s perspective, for a moment:
I find a copy of HEX (Hollow Earth Expedition) at the game shop, and say “Right on! Human adventurers mixing it up with dinosaurs! And it looks a LOT less boring than Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (The Most Boring RPG Ever Written). Let’s pick it up and give it a whirl!”
I purchase the game, read through it drooling at the neat options for character creation, loving the simple even-odd dice mechanics, totally digging the Dinosaur-Nazi-Ancient Atlantean setting. I convince my group to run the game. Everyone digs it and buys a copy (yay! A win for the designer/publisher!)!
We all read it so we know how to play! The players agree not to read the sample adventure scenario so as not to spoil the “surprise.” We bring characters to the first session:
Player Joe creates a total hardcase bootlegger/gangster. Player Christy creates a Laura Croft-esque treasure hunter with an Indiana Jones-like code of ethics. Player Jimmy creates a “mad scientist.” JB, of course, creates a big game hunter hoping to mount a stuffed dino-head on his wall.
The GM says, “Well okay so you’re all on this movie set…” WTF?!
The GM explains that’s the sample scenario: everyone is a part of a movie crew that gets sucked into the Hollow Earth. Nobody in the group wants to play “members of a movie crew.” The example characters are things like “treasure hunter,” “mad scientist,” and “big game hunter.”
Okay, says the GM…scratch that…I’ll think of something that uses your characters.
A week later, the GM is at a loss. I mean, he supposes he can make them all a part of a group testing an experimental digging machine…but why would they be together? The gangster character is looking to exploit opportunities, the BGH wants fame in the form of killing the most dangerous game, the scientist wants to create crazy shit, and the treasure hunter with the heart of gold wants to find fabulous treasures without anyone getting hurt in the process.
The game doesn’t explain this. The game doesn’t provide a blueprint for this. The game suggests that GMs find a way of unifying the group (as with the movie folk scenario) but then doesn’t explain how to reconcile players’ disparate expectations…expectations created by the game’s own character creation section.
In the end, the GM has a couple-three options:
- Require the players to create new characters that work within the GM’s concept of how the game is going to be played. “You’re all part of a movie set,” or “You’re all Arctic explorers in the Royal Military qualified for airship duty.”
- Force the players to give up their own preferred character concepts for ones that “work together.” The mad scientist invented the digging machine, using the gangster’s money. The gangster hopes to exploit the resources of the Hollow Earth. The other players have been brought along as “special consultants” (in archaeology and big game, respectively) setting aside their own pre-conceived agendas. This still doesn’t explain how to create an adventure, nor how to keep players cooperative in the face of different goals/motivations…but at least it gives some semblance of “reason” for the characters to be together. So long as no one else joins with a wildly different character concept.
- Allow players to keep their character concepts, and just hamfist them into the game environment (i.e. who cares why they’re together, let’s just play!). For example, “You’re all refugees who somehow ended up stranded in the Hollow Earth: survive and find your way out!” To which Jimmy says, “but I want to build crazy inventions” and Christy says, “but I want to find lost civilizations.” And the GM says, “Well, right now you’re being chased by a T-Rex backed Nazi platoon…what are you going to do about it?” And next session it will be, “Well, right now there’s an exploding volcano and hostile natives…what are you going to do about it?” Etc. until players get tired of “lip-service protagonism.”
Now, Tim pointed out to me that games like GURPS or Rifts requires a GM to make some stiff choices in order for the game to “work” as in: “Okay, folks this is the game, this is what it will be addressing, this is the type of characters allowed, this is what’s not allowed, this is what the adventure is about.” Fine; dandy. But then:
A) Make it explicit in the rules that this is necessary for running the game (‘cause it is).
B) Make it explicit in the rules that the players are only empowered in so much as they are allowed empowerment by the GM. In other words, there ain’t nothing “wide open” or “endless possibility” about the game, except so much as it applies to the GM’s preference.
For me, as a PLAYER, this is a turn-off. At least in D&D, I get a say in my own character concept (I can play a fighter with a 9 strength and an irascible attitude if I damn well please), within the framework of the game. Being told, “well, you can’t be a Ventrue elder or a bloodbound Tremere because all the PCs are going to be young anarchists of the 12th generation” is sucky. That ain’t what I signed up for.
That’s just the player perspective though. From a GM perspective these games are just as much a headache…but I’ll get to that in another post.