I generally like to keep the articles here focused on play but this article is going to step a bit on the design side only because it ties in with my fiction-first principles. There are rules and procedures in games that I’ve been taking note of lately that I think of as coming from “gamer baggage.” Let’s be honest, a lot of us come from extremely unsatisfying and frustrating experiences within the hobby. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to get rather specific experiences out of gaming and utterly failing. “Gamer baggage” is what happens when a designer takes that frustration and then tries to build in rules and procedures into a game that force or restrain other player’s behaviors to conform to the experience the designer is trying to get out of his own game rather than assuming that basic buy-in as given.
I point to the procedures of creating Issues and Shocks in the game Shock as an example. As written everyone proposes a social Issue that supposedly interests the player and then you create the science fiction Shock to see how it interacts with those issues. That process strikes me as backwards if you assume basic player commitment to the social issue aspects of science fiction. Where science fiction is concerned social issues alone do not excite me. Instead, the social issues *raised* by the proposed Shock does excite me.
I can’t speak for Joshua (the author of Shock) but the written rules seem to stem from repeated frustrating experience where “science fiction” in a game simply meant “we use lasers instead of swords” on an otherwise bog standard action-flick scenario. It seems like an attempt to force people to focus on the issues by taking the fun sci-fi toy away from them rather than assuming that the game’s target audience is made up of the kind of people who will get excited by the social ramifications of the proposed sci-fi toy.
I will admit to strong personal bias in this regard since I’m very much a color-first player. I see the social issues raised by the setup of a lot of board games. When playing Sorcerer I like to think about the look & feel of Demons and Sorcery and other Setting elements and then see what Humanity definition falls out from that. Other people seem to like putting the Humanity definition out front and center and building everything else around it.
However, another example seems to be Instincts in Burning Wheel. Allow me to first say that I have never played Burning Wheel nor have I read the game in its entirety. I have, read the section on Instincts which struck me as being overly defensive against GMs who like to play “gotcha” games. GM: “You spring the trap!” Rogue Player: “What? I’m a professional! I wouldn’t have gone in there without checking for traps!” GM: “Gotcha! You didn’t *say* you were checking for traps!” Again, assuming a basic functional dialogue about the game I’m not entirely sure Instincts are necessary (based on my reading of them).
Yet a third example might be the Appeal rules in Dirty Secrets which allow a formal process of calling into question someone’s narration. I think the Jurisdiction (who has authority over fictional components at a given time) concepts presented are sufficient assuming a functional and committed creative dialogue. I’m not entirely convinced that the Appeal rules are necessary and indeed I’ve never actually seen them used in my own play. Indeed Dirty Secret’s spiritual predecessor Spione uses Jurisdiction alone.
My point is that those of us who aspire to be designers (and indeed those of us who seek functional play at all) need to set aside the rage born of frustration and take for granted that those playing the game are socially functional and creatively synergistic about the game at hand. Putting things in such harmonious terms may make it seem like I’m suddenly advocating that the system doesn’t matter. Allow me to present a counter example to dispel that notion.
System in its entirety (the sum all of techniques used, not just the mechanics) shapes the dialogue space among the group members. So even assuming total creative synergy the system used can either help or hinder the application and realization of that creative synergy. So let’s take a look at the Issue as presented in Primetime Adventures. Similar to my discussion about Shocks and Issues in the game Shock one might argue that anyone committed to good television would naturally create issue laden characters. This is true, however, my point about Shock was not that the Issues get spelled out but that they get spelled out *first*.
In Primetime Adventures having the Issue written down focuses the character especially if the character is rather complex in the player’s head. In some sense it frees the player to play the character as richly and complex as they would like while communicating a central reference point to the rest of the play group for evaluating that complexity. Combine the Issue with the concept of the Spotlight Episode and you have a clearly defined target for the group to hit *for this season*. A different aspect of the character might very well be the target for next season.
From my point of view the Issue and the other design components of PTA aren’t there to force or restrain behavior but to enrich a set of behaviors that were hopefully already there. And that kind of design is ultimately very selfish. It’s about reflecting on what you like to do and creating tools that make that an easy and fun thing to do with other people who also already want to do it and not get caught up in making the game resistant to the presence of non-socially functional or creatively un-invested players. This is by no means an easy thing to do as the frustration and hate of “Gamer Baggage” runs deep, silent and deadly.