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.