Imagine for a moment that you are playing poker. After the round it’s revealed that you have the high hand with two pair when all of a sudden the guy across from you says, “Ah! I’ve got the Ace of Diamonds!” and collects all the cards on the table and places them in front of himself. Just to make it a little weirder he doesn’t even stop you from taking your winnings. You might rightfully ask, “What are you doing?” To which he replies, “I always like to take tricks in my card games.” You might then carefully go over the rules of poker and this individual smiles and nods and says, “Yes, I understand that you won the hand, I just find that trick taking really enhances card games.”
You would assume, I hope, that the person you were talking to was insane. So, why, I ask, do we as role-players not blink an eye when a fellow role-player says something like, “When I GM I usually have the players submit a detailed character write up for approval. I generally like at least two pages.” without any context as to what is being played? Role-playing games are the only games I can think of where players carry around with them huge systemic behaviors from game to game. The GM who *always* has his players submit detailed character write ups for approval is going to have a hard time with “In A Wicked Age…” in a shocking way and will probably be confused on a profoundly disappointing level with something more subtle like “Sorcerer.”
These encultured systems have their roots in the very dawn of the hobby where play was a highly individualized amalgam of rule-books, magazine articles and house rules. It probably reached the height of formalization with games like Vampire where rules to “do stuff” were provided but to what end, what emphasis and under what structure were *intentionally* left “up to the individual group.” Play groups *had* to develop individualized systemic techniques to make functional play happen at all. These personally developed techniques then got carried around from game to game as a matter of course often unacknowledged. Sometimes players would go so far as to claim these techniques were how the game was “supposed” to be played despite the total lack of (unified) textual backing.
Now some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t this just System Matters all over again?” or maybe the idea of purposeful design? Yes, yes it is. Then why bring it up? Because the community has forgotten. I see people carrying around Kickers, Bangs, Relationship Maps, Scene Framing and Stakes just likes Detailed Character Backgrounds, The Party, Faction Maps and Rule Zero got carried around. “Say Yes, or roll the dice” has become encultured as a particularly poisonous mantra. This has lead to the idea of “Forge-style” or “Story Game style” games. People aren’t playing the game at hand; they’re playing some weird amalgamation of every game they have ever played.
However just like it was toxic to bring all your Vampire techniques into Sorcerer it’s equally as toxic to bring all that “Story Game” stuff as some kind of unified play-style into other games. How many people know that The Producer always frames scenes in Primetime Adventures? Don’t believe me? Look it up. How many people know that there’s a perfectly functional and more basic way to play Sorcerer without a Relationship Map? Read Chapter 4 carefully. Look at how people’s ideas of Stakes has lead to mass confusion on how to play “In A Wicked Age…” and yet the text is rather clear on what to procedurally do.
To address this I offer two pieces of advice. To designers, I say consider what systemic (social and mechanical) techniques are required and/or work in your game and say that in the text explicitly. Don’t hand wave it away as, “It’s a story game. People know how to play those.” To players, I say read the text. Do what the text says. Don’t drag encultured rules into play. Stop taking tricks in your “card games.”