Lessons Learned 2

In Lessons Learned 1 I reminisced about some early experiences with players. Trying to build on those lessons set me on the path towards modifying existing games and then writing my own.

Lesson 5: Many players are not game designers, and don’t really want to be. There’s a pretty substantial percentage of players who are tinkerers and like to modify (or ‘hack’) existing games to suit their needs. Substantial enough that most games will call out the best ways to do so, explicitly invite or condemn it, and so on. The problem is sometimes games depend on this kind of tinkering and negotiation, and some groups just do not roll that way. If it’s not clear how to do something in the game, they just won’t do it.

It’s like a player path of least resistance. I mean, you can try just about anything in an RPG, but if the creative stuff gets harder to resolve most players will start to stick more closely with what the rules explicitly cover. I believe this is where complaints that games or players are combat obsessed come from. Most early RPG’s were tactical war games with a narrative layer loosely bolted on. Some people really took to that narrative layer and expanded it…everyone else had a kind of flowchart to follow to help them muddle through until initiative was rolled and the rules had them covered again.

There are players on two ends of a spectrum here, and games need to cater to both. One one end, players just intuitively get that even though the only thing on their character sheet is how well they swing a sword, you can also run, or try to negotiate, or pull down curtains and pretend to be a ghost. On the other end, players are choosing from a menu of game options and if that menu sucks then they will play something else. In the middle you have to be loose enough to not force that first type onto the menu, and keep the menu encouraging enough to draw in the second type and grow their creativity (or support their lack of it).

So yeah, that one person at the table always goes to combat, because that’s what 90% of the rules of the game are about. I’ve seen that same person’s play style be completely different in a game that explicitly had social rules that amounted to more than “Try to talk the GM into it” (which I think is about as fair as resolving combat by punching the GM in the face). Likewise I’ve played looser games with other designers and they were epic. The same games with a group of players fell pretty flat. You can teach them and unlock that potential…but there can resistance to that because for some players that’s just not what they want out of a game.

So when it came time to figure out my own mechanics, I had to be aware of where that path of least resistance was. And yeah, early on it was combat, because that was the expectation. That’s what we knew. Sure I had a rules structure that could handle the other things, but it just wasn’t as satisfying as rolling damage dice.

Lesson 6: Meaningful decisions. It was actually Role-Master that provided a missing puzzle piece for me here. We had a healer who never struck a blow in combat, but was just as interesting and busy as everyone else in combat. One of the things about Role-Master was you had about 8 million fiddly charts that told you exactly what artery was severed and how many fluid ounces of blood you were losing at any given time, which as a fighter mostly encouraged you to not get into fights lest you be separated from the top of your skull during a rainstorm.

But as a healer it became a really interesting mini-game. You could only heal yourself, but you could transfer other people’s injuries to you. So every turn you’d not only have to decide which ally was most desperate for aid, but how much of their trauma could you afford to take on without just knocking yourself out, which of your own new wounds was most critical to deal with first, and so on. You had meaningful decisions to make, which made for satisfying game play despite the fact that you weren’t attacking anything. Eureka, if a negotiation or an attempt to sneak by guards could be as rich a game play experience, maybe people would try that more often.

We’ve been trained as gamers to see those decision points in combat. Can I intercede if a friend is attacked, what fighting style work best in the situation, how many foes can I afford to be close to? Negotiation decision points are harder to see at first, but they are there. Who is most important to get on my side, will lying help me or hurt me, what approach will resonate with the largest number of people? When you combine these meaningful decision points with game options you can dramatically alter the path of least resistance and what is fun. And once that fun option is there, players will take it and start to surprise you again.

For Adventure Frameworks I tried to pay very careful attention to the things my players tried to do over the years. And when they bounced off of something, either because there was mechanical resistance or just plain clumsiness from me as a GM I’d look at what, if anything, could be done by the game to make that action more fun for the player and easier to deal with as an awkward GM. What I came up with I called modes, and these two lessons are why modes exist in my game.

6 thoughts on “Lessons Learned 2

  1. Scott

    This is such an interesting topic to me, because I feel that only on my return to playing RPGs have I really discovered a trend toward the RPG REALLY being a role-playing game, rather than a collection of rules to handle combat and occasional skill rolls. Maybe this comes with age? But maybe not. It has always been a bit of a source of frustration to me. I always wanted the RPG to be a “role” playing game first, and “roll” playing game second. That’s never really how it was though. And because in so many games at the time (in the late eighties, early nineties, etc.), all that was actually codified were the mechanical aspects of ACTION (fighting, flying, running, jumping, trap finding, spell casting, etc.). By the very absence of encouragement, the role playing aspect of RPGs was defacto discouraged. Yes, there were groups out there who bucked that trend, but by and large, most players stuck with what the game covered, and left real character interaction and development as an afterthought. I’m definitely a character junkie. I like to create characters I can fall in love with, with passions, and flaws and the hope that they can find others who can share with, or clash with as the case may be. Certainly I want to do those things in the context of an adventure (exploring a dungeon or saving the world) but the problem with games like DnD, Rolemaster, and even Champions, is there is no way to PLAY that aspect of the game. Consequently, players and GMs alike will, sooner or later, tend to only give it lip-service in favor of firing the next energy blast, or rolling the next save versus death. Our own group STILL falls into that trap with the more mechanically heavy games.

    That all said, and I don’t know what the 5th edition of DnD is like, but I think the 4th edition actually tries to solve this problem in a very heavy mechanical way. It tries to codify EVERYthing: book after book after book of at will, encounter and daily exploits; a dozen different bonuses, feats, and magic item benefits that need to be collated, qualified for certain situations, and added together into a veritable tangle of stats, modifiers and skills. In this way, it absolutely accomplishes one goal: each character is definitely unique. It’s very nearly impossible to play identical characters in DnD. Their abilities become who they are, and by that token, everyone is different. Some people can take that and run with it. Some people will take that and create a character with depth and personality DESPITE all the numbers they have to keep track of. All that said, this must appeal many people. Given that DnD is still probably the most popular and prevalent RPG in the world, it certainly does. It seems to me, though, that it just goes further and further toward taking the accessibility of role playing away from players (especially newer players), rather than granting more of it. I think I prefer a much different tact.

    I certainly don’t mean to put all my eggs in FATE CORE’s basket, but I much prefer how it handles all this. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. It adds mechanics to character creation and development that absolutely appeal to what I like to see in a role playing game. You could EASILY play that exact same adventure in DnD and in FATE, and because of the mechanics of the rules, each play through would have different points of emphasis. In one, you’d address a table, or a stat, or a set of sub-rules for a maneuver to determine the outcome of a particular encounter. The narrative of the character (if you bothered to try to create one) would revolve around the abilities you used, and whether or not they were successful. In the other, you would instead be encouraged to actually place yourself in the situation, knowing that your character has certain strengths, and weaknesses, and try to figure out in the context of what is happening, how best to resolve the problem. This could be as simple as whacking someone with a sword, but it could also be something outrageous that is born out of who your character is, who they are with, or the environment they’re in. The overall result may be the same, but in one you’re looking to the game to tell you what you can and can’t do, and in the other, the game is looking to you to tell it what you WANT to do.

    I TOTALLY understand why each of these can be appealing (or unappealing) to different players. FATE is not necessarily harder, but requires a different mindset–in which all players will collectively help create the encounter and determine pro-actively how it plays out. DnD on the other hand offers you a huge menu of options, and you choose from the menu to determine how the encounter plays out. Trying to order OFF the menu in DnD is… well it’s very hard to do, but it goes a long way to mitigating the pressure you might feel in FATE to come up with an idea from only a couple aspects, a couple skills, the situation, and your imagination.

    I’ve rambled on and on about this, and it probably now has little to do with what you were talking about. My point, I guess, is that I think I speak for a lot of other players out there, who want to actually play a role in their role playing game, but aren’t necessarily as quick witted, inventive, and fast on their feet as a game designer would need to be to support a more free-form type of role-playing. More mechanics (a la DnD) can help with this, but they can also be a burden. Less mechanics (a la Eternity) can be a boon for creativity, but can be a huge burden in a different way. For some people this kind of thing makes the game not a game anymore, but more about a collective exercise in story-telling. I totally get it. I definitely fall more on the side of less than more, though.

    FINALLY, I do want to say that ultimately, it matters much less to me what the specific game rules are. More important is the people I’m playing the game with. The funner and more flexible the group, and the more rapport they’ve established, the funner the game. 🙂

    1. Frameworker Post author

      Lot’s of meat here to respond to! A few things jump out.

      I’m actually usually a rare 4th edition apologist, but one of the criticisms of it is that even though you have all these unique powers, essentially everyone is the same. When you get down to it, whether you’re a fighter or a wizard your daily power does a bunch of damage and adds a status. And the framework for other modes all fell into a single thing called a skill challenge, which was too broad to add value and lacked meaningful decisions as well. So it offers you a pretty variable menu of options, but 95% of those are combat options so you end up in the same place.

      I really like Fate, but it can suffer a little from that ‘one size fits all’ mechanic where a fight, a chase, and a debate all start to feel kind of the same (more on that when I get to modes). Which is awesome in a lot of ways. Adding those layers where you want them is why pretty much every setting book adds a cool little subsystem to bolt on or leave off as you desire. It takes a little time to really get how Create Advantage works to add those options to your menu, or how important it is to have the situation aspects already there so your menu is pre-loaded. Likewise ‘tricks’ in Savage Worlds opens up a ton of similar opportunities.

      I think the trick is trying to cater to both types of player somewhere in the middle without unduly hosing one side or the other. One could probably debate that’s impossible, but I do think Fate Core hits that pretty close. (I think Adventure Frameworks does too, but I admit bias on that one!)

      1. Scott

        I hear you about DnD 4. In a way, it just seems to make the whole exercise of creating and maintaining a character (which is a real job of work, I must say) an exercise in futility. I guess my point was that even if all the options are basically MECHANICALLY similar, they are at least attempting to add a different FLAVOR to each of them. So through those options, some players might feel that they can get in touch with the character aspect of their character through choosing just the right flavor of ability. Maybe? I still say it fills up a LOT of books, and takes a lot of extra time for relatively little benefit, though.

        And I certainly agree that FATE isn’t perfect, and shouldn’t be the only game anyone plays ever. So far, though, with regard to game systems I’ve tried, I find it to be my favorite. I’m still learning how to get the most out of it. I think we all are, but wow has it made a big impression so far.

        That said, of course, I haven’t tried AF yet, and I’m greatly looking forward to it. 🙂 I fear that the Silk Road setting may be a little challenging for me to get into, but like I said, I’m game for anything that I get to play with our group. 🙂

        1. Frameworker Post author

          Well, and here comes the 4th ed apology, we make it complex, but we don’t have to. You can build your character quite nicely out of a single book. Part of that whole model though is “oh, but look at the shiny over here!” and then you get the experience you had, where it takes 7 books to do anything.

          For AF if it’s too challenging to get you in, that’s my signal as a writer that I have some work to do. (My excuse is that a lot of what you looked at is really rough placeholder stuff, so I kind of expect you to bounce off it and already know I have work to do, heh.)

          And I do like Fate Core a lot, I just can’t help poking at its seams a bit. 😀 That’s actually my favorite part of the setting books, is each one generally takes it upon itself to build out and expand one of the modes so you can use it as needed. It keeps their own gameplay focused, but adds a niche to the overall product.

  2. Jeremyg

    Just a quick note, since I really should be working…
    I think the roll versus role playing can a lot of about how you look at a game not just how you are a player. For example I love role playing in AF. But in DnD I tend to think of it more like a combat game then a role playing game. This is not a bad thing, it’s just what it is. I love the fiddly little bits and munchkining the math and having 2 dozen books to choose from to play that game. But it doesn’t scratch the same itch as AF or FATE. Scott, I hope we gave you enough of an impression of what my DnD game would be like, so it isn’t a disappointment that it more of a different sort of game. I love when we manage to inject some more role playing in amongst the rolling, but I’m not disappointed when it is just some a sting of old fashion tactical mini’s combat either.

    One another note, one of the things I fell in love with AF over was that fact that there was a “game” to every sort of encoutner/challenge type in the game. It wasn’t just a combat simulator. The pacifist clergyman could have as much fun, make as many interesting choices, and even roll as many dice as the gun slinger. Heck the “highschool the game” encounter we played in sundered skies, still has been one of my favorite gaming experiences just because it was so unique and got to play off character roles in a non-combat situation like nothing else I’ve played.

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