Saturday, 16 November 2013

Gaming: A Sorta Manifesto

One of my distractions at the moment is gaming. Not actually doing it (I'm hoping to start an all female game of Night's Black Agents, which  I must confess I'm really looking forward to; but for my main group I'm still on a break), but just thinking about it.

This has taken a few different modes, first realising that I've been far too conciliatory on some levels. I've given ground on games I like and really want to play in the name of getting some sort of game which all the players can grasp, even to the extent of taking a 'high concept only' route at one point to ease the way. If I couldn't explain a game's concept in 25 words or fewer I simply didn't pitch it... not ideal when I really want games about urban magic and conspiracies not only to control the world but to bind its imagination in webs so tight that aberrant thoughts become near to impossible. This has been coupled with a black mood where I worry that going back to my gaming group means having to accept that playing games focused on fighting and really simple concepts is the only way I'm going to get to game, leaving me wondering what to do with regards to this. Running Night's Black Agents is going to be fun, but it's a stop gap, not a solution. Sooner or later I have to deal; either I need to change, to find a new gaming group or find a way to make what I want mainstream for my old group.

I flashback to something one of my players said about Yggdrasil, 'that will be different' and find myself asking 'how?' - wishing for something to change doesn't make it so, unfortunately, and the games I've played recently really make me feel like bashing stuff is the only game in town. Also, as I've commented in the past, I feel as if my taste in genres and what I want to
run is out of step with everyone else, which is creating a problem for me. I did find myself wondering about buying FFG's Deathwatch game just to run as a straight forward combat simulator, but even before I got it I was thinking that it wouldn't take, its not in my nature to run something like that - poisoned histories, grail quests and the Knights Templar filled my imagination. I'm still not sure, I might get it, but it seems unlikely.

Increasingly though, I'm trying to express what I do want in a game, to build a manifesto for my gaming (yeah I know, how '80s) and put things into context. I work best in the written form so that's why I'm trying to do this, and I figured I'd put it up here, with justifications for each part.

1) Talk to the players before the game starts to establish common ground and focus, be that fighting, intrigue, socialising, exploration or what have you. Partly this is here because there's no point letting someone design a detective if your games going to be all ass kicking and fights. Likewise there's no point letting someone build a fighter if most of your game will take the player characters to soirees and balls to learn secrets. As a GM I feel quite strongly (possibly as a result of previous GMs approving what seemed to turn out to be fifth wheel PCs, my recent Face in Shadowrun being one of them - without wanting to sound bitter, but when most of a session is fighting, being the guy whose main skill set lets him convince elf gangers they've won a tater tots promotion kind of feels like a stupid choice) that there needs to be a strong guide on what's needed, even for 'entry level' games like D&D and Shadowrun. The old 7th Sea game had a table for this kind of thing, dividing the game into a number of focus areas (combat, intrigue, exploration and romance were the main ones as far as I remember) and I'm wondering about bringing it back.

This would also allow for a discussion of genre - having played in 7th Sea and seen players neither take risks (okay that's partially because the mechanics were a bit wonky) nor operate according to the 'only the big villain gets killed, everyone else gets knocked out' trope and in a silver age supers game where two of the heroes were intent on being killers, I don't think it's possible to undersell how important this kind of discussion is. Most genres are so broad that they've become suggestions rather than prescriptions. A space opera game could be in line with Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, Firefly or Iain Banks' Culture novels (personally I'd like to play something akin to Charles Stross' Saturn's Children with the characters being robots in a post human universe). Other genres have similar issues with breadth which convinces me that they've almost become a lazy way of signposting intention.

The other side of this is, that with a few exceptions, I really don't think the GM should generate everything for a campaign; players have to take a turn, especially if we want to break away 'frustrated novelist' stuff but have games that aren't just dungeon crawling and beating up guys for having different colour skin or bad employment choices. White Wolf used to call this 'open campaign planning' and it's become more and more appealing as time's gone by. The problem here of course is that there's a strongly ingrained culture in gaming of a) the GM and players are opponents and b) the player's job is to turn up and play, and nothing else and this idea challenges that, even after twenty years of games trying erode it.

2) Get a number of 'facts' for each character, I think three or five would be best. These can be anything from 'likes cinnamon buns' to 'killed his father as a child to stop him beating his mother up', anything that lets the character come to life is fine. A huge history isn't necessary, one thing that's cool about Numenera are the tables to create connections to other characters and fill in background without it becoming overwhelming. In the same way that FATE's character gen gives just enough history without filling in every little piece: that's what you need for a book character, not an RPG one. For everything else 3 or 5 facts feel like the happy medium.

3) Keep it social. I don't really care about the context but I like it if the characters can sit down somewhere and socialise, that they have peers and connections who aren't all job related. Think about Elysium in the Vampire games or the Caern in Werewolf the Apocalypse, it's not just a place to get plots moving, but a
place where the player characters can be themselves without being on edge; that's important. The opposite, where the characters exist in a perfect bubble with nobody else in their social circle except for the other PCs and job related NPCs, feels false. I'll concede that in the past I've gone too far the other way, trying to build worlds in the background with no real expectation that the players try to engage (because real life doesn't work like that and I like immersion). Nowadays I try to fight the urge to overfill the setting with plots unless I'm serious about people following them.

4) Try to play around with adventure structures as much as possible, always starting at the beginning can get boring whereas in media res and using flashbacks feels more natural and interesting to break the game up. Nothing is more fun than variation.

As an addendum I'd also add limiting the number of subplots player characters can carry at any one time, a game of Legend of the Five Rings I ran ended up with one player dominating the game because his character was so busy poking his nose into things; eventually he was dominating the game so much that it felt like the rest of the players might as well not have bothered turning up and he was just stressing me out. So, I think I'm going to limit subplots to three per player and asking them to pick one they want to focus on rather than just trying to keep all the balls in the air.

5) I also want to get away as much as possible from the trope of 'group x are bad guys', where that means blurring into what feels like quasi racist or elitist roles. I know it's stupid, on one level we're talking about fiction and make believe so it doesn't matter what they are. On the other hand it leaves a bad taste in my
mouth unless there's a strong reason in game behind it - if there are Orcs for instance then it's fine if they were corrupted by an evil god or something; a Victorianesque idea of them being evil because they're savage and uncivilised is offensive though. I feel the same about corp security in cyberpunk games, why should they get the metaphorical red shirt simply because they have to work for a mega corporation?

Here I should explain, I'm happy to use cults and villainous groups of mean people in games, especially if they're full of people who have either made a free choice or been brainwashed into going along with the mean people's plan. If the bulk of the cult's members are willing participants, happy to support a plan to resurrect Akhenaten because it will make them fabulously rich and powerful? Hell yeah, bring your guns and explosives, administer a nitro glycerin enema and do star jumps for I care. They made their choice and went along with something evil.

Brainwashed dupes present another issue, but one that I hope would dealt with sensitively.

Pointing at a bunch of people who are green and barbarous (as is the case of Warhammer's Orcs) and saying 'evil' comes across a completely different level and as signed up bleeding heart liberal pinko scum, I'm uncomfortable with that.

6) Reward creativity, keep combat to quick fights that don't bog down the session and try to encourage the players to be creative in combat - too often it seems that it bogs down to 'I hit him' or 'I shoot him', which is dull, dull, dull. I really like Exalted's stunt system for that, it gives players a reason to push further and do some grandstanding with a set of mechanics to back them up. Added to this though is a desire to get conflicts resolved more peacefully, through negotiation rather than just by violence. I was really heartened when my friend Bert told me that his group had defeated an encounter with giants by talking to them rather than reaching for their swords. This is what I'd like in my games.

7) It's not what you fight, it's what you fight for: this credo, taken from the Mouseguard comic, underscores my last point, which relates to game structure in general. I've grown quite tired of the trope of characters being a group of plucky adventurers who wander the land taking jobs. It feels false (especially in a fantasy game where the ability to travel would likely be restricted, how many villeins took holidays or even went on pilgrimages?) and cuts down on the dramatic possibilities of a game quite a lot - most drama comes from social interaction and conflicting drives; you can't have that if you're constantly on the road and you're not likely to come back that way again. In addition to this, having something to fight for lets the characters aspire to something greater than just loot.

Oddly that seems to be all I can think of, making the manifesto conveniently short. I don't think any of the things I've put are unreasonable and to be honest I'm baffled as to why they aren't standard practice for  gamers, perhaps they are. I'm conscious that a lot of what I'm suggesting are more cinematic or novel like fixes for things and would take things away from the traditional shape of most games. I'm actually pretty happy about that.

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