15 November, 2017

But what's the game about?

I've noticed a few conversations again,where one group of people say that they love the way social gaming occurs within traditional D&D...then a second group of people say, that this comment doesn't make sense because traditional D&D didn't really have any rules for social interaction... then the first group says that they love it because social play develops in spite of the rules, not because of them.

Yes, I know, there is a Charisma stat in traditional D&D, there are rules for gathering retainers and henchmen, there are even rules for npc reactions based on random rolls and modifiers if you start digging into things. That's not really the point of the discussion. The point is probably the fact that rules are there, they are promptly ignored by the players, and a simplified modelling of social interaction occurs at the table. It's a bit like the old notion of the "fruitful void" that was big in Indie design circles a few years ago, except that a void is made by ripping out the heart of a section that isn't liked and then the broken ribcage is used as a playground.

Some designers get around this by saying, use the rules as they are written, if it isn't in the rules then that's not what the game is about...if your game does end up about that thing, you must be playing it wrong. I've heard that said about Apocalypse World, there are certain moves in the rules, and if a move doesn't cover what you want to do (or isn't in your playbook), you just can't do it...you need to maneuver the story into a different angle of approach until you do have a way to address the issue. That just feels wrong to me, and is one of the laundry list of reasons why I don't like that system. A few of the games that spawned from it went with the idea of a generic roll, or rolls that can be generated on the fly in response to events as they unfold in the narrative. Which then makes me wonder why bother having a distinct playbook at all, why not go back to a generic system with a standard die mechanism, and attributes or skills that modify it according to the situation in which the roll is being made?

There seems to be a fine line between making a game too generic, and too specialised. I would have thought the grey area between the extremes was bigger, but most games seem to linger on one side of the grey area or the other. A lot of games try to bridge the gap into the generic space with rule systems that are either overly complex,or not fitting with the tone of the other rules in the game...thus the rules are ignored and house rules are modified on the fly...which then leads to players engaging in an experience quite different to the one possibly intended by the designer. I could probably run a game of almost anything, using a specific rule set with minimal modifications (beyond flavour text, fluff, and setting elements) to portray almost any genre. Does that prove anything??...no, not really. I'm sure there are plenty of other experienced GMs/DMs/MCs who could do likewise. It just means that rules should be easy enough to be remembered with minimal referencing (otherwise they get forgotten) and should integrate with the setting (otherwise they get ignored out of spite).

In The Law, I deliberately made a generic system where actions often have costs associated with them, whether they succeed or not. Then I made a range of skills thematically appropriate to the setting. A player can use their character to do anything they want within the setting (or at least attempt to), but unless they've got a good attribute or a moderate attribute and an associated skill, it's going to probably make things complicated, or fail miserably.

In Walkabout, I'm basically aiming in the same direction, but as a game focused on community, and the power of stories and relationships, I'll be using more of these elements to enhance the narrative, the setting and the way characters interact with them.
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