Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Things I Think About Games (After Hindmarch and Tidball) Part One

October is back to once a day postings, with my plan to finish a couple of outstanding articles and mostly do reviews of smallish rpg products I like. To kick off this month, I start with a two-parter on gaming in general.

Things I Think About Games (After Hindmarch and Tidball) Part One

I picked up William Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball's Things We Think About Games recently. They write for one of my favorite gaming blogs It is a pretty quick and easy read at about 140 pages or so. Each page has a single idea about gaming-- board, role-play or what not. Since the ideas are brief, you're getting a good deal of white space for the $20 price tag. I'm still not sold about whether it merits that cost, but I did enjoy the book-- but maybe not $20 worth. There some obvious stuff, some stuff I disagree with, some stuff that hadn't occurred to me (like the point about keeping your fingernails clean since people will be seeing your hands constantly when you play a game), and some confirmatory ideas (never ask for takebacks even if you misheard or had a rule misexplained to you-- play as if you'll have another chance at the game later). There's a nice section on real world lessons learned from playing World of Warcraft, an intro from Wil Wheaton, and comments from Robin Laws (one of my favorite designers).

In any case, I decided to write up a list of things that I think about rpgs that weren't included in the book.

If You Don't Like to be Wrong, Maybe You Shouldn't be Playing an RPG.

These kinds of games are, by their nature about uncertainty. You don't, can't, have all of the information. Drama comes from surprise, mistakes, mystery and accidents. There's also the fact that you have other players reading the situation, often quite differently. The nature of the game means you can't always be right-- even in a game without dice.

If You Can't be Wrong, You Really Shouldn't be Playing an RPG.

And maybe you better see if you've got some deeper problems. Not that you could really acknowledge that, right?

If You're Going to Say No, You'd Better Have Another Option
There's a role-playing maxim that suggests the GM shouldn't say no. If you can't quite get to yes-- have the player make a roll. The basic idea is to affirm player choices and provide them with opportunities, even if you don't think those choices seem great or especially if you think they're game breakers. If something's a gamebreaker to you as a GM, then you've planned it wrong. On the other hand if a player asks to do something that doesn't make sense to me as a GM, I'll repeat back to them what they say they're doing, perhaps with some more context of the situation, in case I haven't described the situation as well as I should have.

But this also applies to situations as a player. If someone suggests a plan or option and you say no-- you'd better explain why. Few things can bring a game to a halt quicker than players who simply shut down other player's ideas. And “I don't want to” isn't really an option.

Want to Piss Me Off? Tell Me You Were Just Playing Your Character

I've said it many, many times before, but know where your character ends and your player begins. Being crappy to other players, NPCs or to the GM and then saying “I was just playing my character” is like saying: You Suck and then putting a :-) after it (or a “Wink!”). Bottom line- as has been said before- don't be a dick.

Feed a Bad Player and He'll Sh*t All Over Your Game.
Some bad play comes out of ignorance or unfamiliarity to the play or the group dynamic. That can be fixed- through example or through discussion with a player. But some bad play is just bad play and can't be fixed. If you throw most plots, NPCs, or other things you think they want, they'll still be bad players and you'll have alienated the others at the table. They'll get fat and bloated until something happens where they make that final release...or the game ends...or both. I've seen it too many times.

Some Characters are Easier to Write for than Others

Some PCs are easier to develop storylines for than others-- for that particular GM. A games strives for a kind of parity in terms of attention between players but in practical reality it never achieves that. As a GM, it isn't necessarily that I like one character better than another-- but some character fit better with what I'm doing, spark more stories or seem more sympathetic to me. I'm trying my best to keep that in rein, but it happens. If you're not getting the table time you want, talk to the GM about the kinds of stories you'd like and how that fits with your character. Don't demand X plot, but give the GM a better sense of things-- they may be lost when it comes to plotting for you.

Give Me an Excuse to Let You Win
As a GM, I want you to win most of the time. I want you to have small victories, but I also want there to be challenge and tension. When you're trying to do something, don't just say what you're doing, but how you're doing it and why you're character is able to (skills, equipment, past experiences, psychological shock). Give me a hook to hang the victory on-- something that makes you're investment in your character pay off.

Some Skills are Better Than Others
Most systems with skills generally have equal costs for most skills. However, not all skills are as useful as others- by this I mean things like Sailing or Pilot (Cart). That's a fact of the game.

I Want What I Paid For
On the other hand, if skills like Diplomacy or Combat Abilities aren't going to be useful in a game-- the GM better tell me that ahead of time. If I've built my character based on statements about what the game is going to be like and it isn't that, I'm going to be pissed.

Celebrate Victory
When a player wins, let them win. Give them proper credit for their victory. Never undercut it with “well, the opposition wasn't that tough...” or the like. As a GM it costs you nothing, and an inflated sense of self can be used later. Especially never undercut a PCs dramatic death or sacrifice. If they die holding a gate against the enemy, don't say afterwards “You know there was a special button you could have pushed to magically lock that...”. Don't do that. Really don't-- not even with an off-hand comment. Don't.

Epic Fail = Table Time
The best part of having awful things happen to your character is that you get a chance to play those moments out. Sure a GM will probably play out some good, happy times at the table-- but more often than not we'll be dealing with the tense and awful. If you keep your character safe and bottled up, then you're less interesting. There's a limit to how many times I'm going to try to draw you out with new characters or plot threads. Eventually I'll get tired of that and figure you just want to watch the game go by for other people. Take risks, even if you think they might not be in character fully, to give yourself a chance to be at the center of a scene.

Plays Well with Others
On the other hand, do go falling into everything just to have all the table time you can. That's annoying and diva-like. Learn to love the other PCs-- be as interested in their stories as your own. Make yourself the person they want to have with them when they go to do their scenes.


  1. Yea! I was going into Lowell blog withdrawal. Good to have you back in the fight. Against boredom.

    Two thoughts. First, I realize that I don't play main character PCs in RPGs. Essentially, I tend to play Wash in Firefly, commenting and pushing forward the broader plots. Frankly, I really am there just to hang out and BS.

    I'd love to hear what you think of Gabe's laser/mirror dungeon from the Penny Arcade blog. The players came up with a clever solution to deal with one challenge and Gabe wished he'd been prepared to stop that. It seemed an odd reaction to me: they really deserved that small victory.

  2. 1. And I think that's a good role, and good to know what you want out of a game. I've switched back and forth between wanting to be the lead and wanting to be the support. If things aren't moving forward in the game, then I tend to move to the lead position.

    2. re: Penny Arcade. I read that yesterday and had and had a similar reaction. I know where that's coming from-- less irritation over the players overcoming the obstacle, but more that something he'd thought up in his mind was so easily (and obviously) overcome. I've had that before where I set up a puzzle or something and the players wash through it-- and I'm frustrated at myself for not seeing that path and the ease of dealing with the problem I set up.

    My other reaction to his article, and I think my reaction to a lot of what I'm seeing come out of 4e and WoW-influenced systems is that these are less rpgs than they are board games. They're closer to something like Descent or HeroQuest (from GW).

  3. "I did enjoy the book-- but maybe not $20 worth."

    I passed on it twice at Gen Con for the same reason. I'd like to pick it up, but $20 will buy a greater amount of gaming goodness elsewhere.

  4. It does illustrate one of the downfalls of buying online- I mean I generally like buying from Amazon, and trust the various review and things, but every once in a while I get caught out. I mean I like the book quite a bit, but it is about $5 more expensive than I would have been willing to pay if I'd had a chance to flip through a physical copy.