Overly Processing Play With The Rules
If you asked me ten years ago what I wanted out of an RPG I would have said this: “I want a game that when played optimally by computers will produce a compelling narrative.” I’m not joking. I was a firm believer that a system more or less has to compel players to do interesting things, otherwise they won’t.
That may sound absurd but I still see variations of that attitude taken to different extremes lingering in the hobby. I see people who interpret the fact that you get a bonus from applying a trait in a game like Primetime Adventures means traits are about getting people to “act like” those traits. Or indeed I see people stretching (quite painfully) in every scene to try and make their traits relevant.
Basically what I’m seeing here is a system foremost (rather than a system matters) attitude. I see attempts to engage the system directly and see what it “wants” the person to do fictionally. This article is about how that process is backwards.
Some games are robust enough to handle a system foremost approach. Dogs in the Vineyard is an example. You can pretty much grind out the rules of that game in a semi-mechanized manner and something interesting will likely result. I think this is because Dogs in the Vineyard puts in so many other social constraints that a mechanistic approach to system works. Everyone knows they are Dogs. Everyone knows a Dog’s job is to solve the problems of the town. Everyone knows the four major moral “break” points of conflict are Talking, Physical, Violence and Guns.
So if you basically go into every conflict starting at Talking and the GM always pushes and pushes as hard as he can and the player constantly assesses at each break point, “Is this worth the next step?” then you get a fairly straightforward narrative. I mean, after all, that’s what the system clearly “wants” you to do, right? Well, the game doesn’t disintegrate if you play it that way but it makes for a fairly boring game. It also misses on some fairly nuanced and exciting application of the rules.
One of the things some people are quick to point out is that you don’t need to go all the way to Gun Fighting to get all your dice. So if I mechanically don’t NEED to go to gun fighting doesn’t that weaken the temptation? The fact that you don’t need to go to gun fighting to get all your dice makes the decision to start shooting more powerful. It turns the spotlight AWAY from the dice and firmly back on the player as an emotional entity. There are enough dark circles and bold underlines around guns in the game that their relevance as a component of the fiction is loud and clear. Does your engagement with your character and the fiction warrant shooting?
Another thing to take note of is that escalation is not a linear progression. You can start in of the four arenas and “escalate” to any of the four other arenas and even return to arenas you’ve already been to. From that perspective “escalating” is really more about unifying different conflict methodologies (by keeping their application consistent via the Raise system while changing their severity through different size fallout dice) than “temptation.” Considering shooting, then talking, then shooting some more then dropping your gun and throwing a punch makes for a much more dynamic conflict landscape.
Finally, my personal favorite emotional tool is Giving. You don’t have to Give only at the “break” points. You can Give anytime you want and that includes the GM. When Giving is on the table at every point it becomes one of the most powerful thematic markers in the entire game. It allows the “target” of a Raise to socially acknowledge that they’ve been emotionally defeated. The chance to say that what’s been said, fictionally, is compelling enough, to them, that there’s no point in going on.
Applying these nuances requires a fiction first approach to the game. Instead of looking at the system as what shapes the fiction look at how to express the fiction through the system. That’s why system matters. It’s not because systems constrain player behavior to an “appropriate” set of fictional input. It’s because they shape how your fictional input gets mechanically expressed. The commitment to quality fictional input has to come first. This approach requires thinking, feeling and doing what feels emotionally right to you as audience and author and then reaching out and applying the tools given to you to express that commitment.
As I said earlier Dogs in the Vineyard is fairly robust as to not disintegrate if you play it in the mechanistic manner. However there are some games that will disintegrate if you don’t treat them in a fiction first manner. Sorcerer is an example. From a fiction first approach it’s fairly clear to see that Demon Needs and Desires, Humanity, Kickers, Price and Descriptors all work in a fairly sophisticated concert even though there is no mathematically connection between them. They are rules and design but require artistry and skill to apply. Sorcerer would not be better served by giving demon’s Need points that fuel their Abilities and when the demon runs out of Need points you can recharge them by transferring your Humanity points and narrating some awful thing you do to justify the transfer.
Dirty Secrets is similar. That game is fueled almost entirely by the player’s opinions of the characters and their willingness to express them. The grid is less about generating a surprising random outcome and more about voting. Because the grid is used for all the crimes you’re voting for a given character to be guilty of something. It’s the height of being judgmental. The scary thing about Dirty Secrets is that the only thing you are given to form your *initial* opinion is demographics. That’s by design. But if you don’t put your feelings at the forefront of the application of the rules then the game falls flat.
My point here is that viewing rules and design as a “story sausage grinder” that so perfectly limits the player’s input and so perfectly processes that input to be “thematically acceptable” ultimately leads to predictable and flat play. When it gets discussed it appears to be a well meaning effort to eliminate the possibility of creative failure or perhaps an attempt to “unify” players such that “anyone” can play successfully (together) as long as they follow the rules. To all that I can only say without emotional and creative risk there is rarely as great an emotional and creative reward.