Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I Did Not Come to Bury Ceasar

Yesterday's blog post about a particular game may have been perceived wrongly. It was not my intention to slag on Pathfinder, but to use it as an example of a more fundamental problem in the table-top games industry. I could have taken TSR to task for inventing the whole "splatbook" phenomenon (The Complete Guide to Syphilitic Halflings? Really TSR?). I could have gone after White Wolf for perfecting this model, because who doesn't need Topeka By Night? Right now, the game of finding paths is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the one with which people are the most familiar. It's not the sole, or greatest, purveyor of a more basic problem -- bloat.

I think some fundamental assumptions have taken root in the hobby games industry. Certainly, some of this is understandable. Game companies exist to make money (believe it or not), and they do this by putting out product. At a certain point, a game line reaches critical mass of information; I generally peg this at around seven products. But I'm not talking about the economic aspect. I'm referring to a philosophy that seems to dominate game design these days.

1) Bad GM Proofing
We've all had this experience. You join a group, or drop in on someone's game, and the Gamemaster is horrible. He doesn't know the rules, or he seems to have read them in a different language from everyone else at the table, or he has his own "homebrew" rules that he wants to use. Worse are the ones who think it's their job to murderate all the characters in the game; even the tavern-keepers whip out Shotguns of Lighting Bolts at the slightest provocation. You get the mumbling ya-yas who present everything in a monotone, or the theater major who wants to act (Acting!) every little scene and forgets about rolling dice.

You are, largely, at the whims of whomever is narrating your game. That's a basic weakness of the shared, interactive experience. You can write the greatest game ever in the history of humanity, and it turns to dreck in the hands of some moron with anger management issues. Game companies know this, because we've all been a victim of it; we played RPGs in basements, too. We hear about your terrible experiences at conventions and in e-mail. I've gotten emotional e-mails from fans telling me about how their GM is running a game I've written and begging me to fire off an "official" letter telling the guy how the rule actually works. (I kid you not.) And my advice was always the same: Find a new GM.

To combat this, we've tried to make our games "Bad GM Proof." More and more rules to handle every situation that could possibly come up. Example after example of game play to illustrate how a particular rule should be applied. New rules to modify old rules when an unforeseen problem crops up. Here's the thing though: You cannot "Bad GM Proof" a game. Can't be done. You can never regulate bad behavior in this way; a bad GM is always going to be a bad GM unless you actually go to his house and run the game for him.

2) There's a Right Way to Play
This is the converse impulse of trying to make a game unbreakable, I believe. There is a right way to play a game and a wrong way to play a game, and by God you're going to play it the way the designer intended. If you're playing Call of Cthulhu as a group of super-agents armed to the teeth with machine guns, you're not playing it right. If you want to use the rules for All Flesh Must Be Eaten to tell your touching story about love and redemption, then you're not playing it right. Admittedly, I hear this more from game players than game creators. I think most of us are just happy you're buying our products. We don't care how you use them, as long as you're using them.

I think this crops up in design thinking as a way to support established play. We have an idea of how the game should work, and we write more and more stuff to support that vision. This is the origin of the "splatbook." Dungeons & Dragons was a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. TSR put out books to support that trope -- The Complete Book of How Dwarves Kill Things and Take Their Stuff, The Complete Book of How Elves Kill Things and Take their Stuff, and so on. We continue to find ways to refine and expand on the original game play experience.

The idea, particularly with AD&D 3E, was that everyone should have a shared experience. A group in Belfast and a group in Topeka should be able to play through a module and have similar experiences. They tried to emulate what had happened in the early 80s; take any of us from those days and ask us about Tomb of Horrors, and we've all played it. We wax nostalgic about that trap that vaporized the dwarf, or the one that killed the halfling. That shared experience, however, didn't come from playing the game the "right" way or even "the same way." In fact, I submit this shared experience was easier to achieve because the rules were less comprehensive. Simpler is better.

(And really, Pathfinder does this (cultivating a shared experience) really well with their adventure path series. In fact, I think you could play a great game with just their boxed set and the adventure path material; you don't need that 600-page behemoth of a rulesbook. Which makes me wonder why they even bother with it... )

At a point, you reach a point of diminishing returns; there literally becomes no way to continue to expand on the original game experience. Once TSR put out the Complete Book of Gnomes, they should have turned out the lights and moved on to something else. The game becomes too bloated, which makes it hard for newcomers to get into.

3) More is More
I blame Harn. Harn was the first real "expansive" game setting. That thing was breathtaking in its scope. It was like reading a travel guide for a place that didn't exist. I know it opened my eyes to the possibilities of world building and redefined what a setting looks like. The next setting I remember capturing my imagination was Talislanta; that setting had a book for each region, and each was a joy to read. I could go on -- Arduin, Jorune, Forgotten Realms... I haven't even gotten into the big daddy of them all: Empire of the Petal Throne. At a certain point, for me as a designer, if it wasn't as detailed as Harn, it just wasn't a setting.

You all learned that lesson, too. That's why you demand the kind of detail I railed against yesterday. The more detail a setting has, the better is must be. I get the impulse, because I have it, too. The question becomes, then, how much detail is enough, and is the information actually useful in game play? I think that point is different for different kinds of game players. Some people want tons of information about the setting, while others really don't need that much at all.

As I get older, as a game designer, I've come to appreciate the converse: Less is more. It's a Zen thing. What makes the cup useful? The empty space in the middle. What makes the Zen painting profound? The white space surrounding the subject. By not covering every little detail, you give the reader permission to fill in the blanks. You let him or her make their own connections. In short, you encourage them to use their imaginations.

When I look back on those early, awesome settings, there was actually a lot of stuff they left out. I had no idea why the Yittek delved into tombs in Talislanta, I just knew they did, so I created all these connections in my head to answer the question. If you look at Empire of the Petal Throne, there was a lot of "white space" between the elements MAR Barker included. I'd much rather a game setting that leaves things unspoken and unconnected over one that tells me all about the sociological effects of cotton exports to the elves.

As I begin to design games again, I find myself coming back to this question: How much detail is enough, is it useful to the game, and am I leaving enough room for the end user to create?

1 comment:

  1. Very cool post. I am thinking about the subject recently too.