Thursday, December 18, 2014

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

I’m looking back at posts from the first year of this blog (’09) and commenting on them. Today I correct a disservice. Five years on Things We Think About Games remains a book I go back to and reread every few months. I’ve lent it to other people and pestered them to give it back. When I wrote this post, I questioned the book's price tag. I was wrong- it is worth that and more. When I’m feeling moody about gaming I look at it again. When I’ve got five minutes to kill I look at it again. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it makes me think about why I don’t agree with it. A great, short books I recommend for anyone who plays games.


Here’s the first half of my original post “as is,” with comments. These are, as always, personal preference.

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 gameplaywright.com. 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 mis-explained 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. 

Ironically even as I wrote this I was dealing with a couple of bad players I ended up feeding and inviting back to the table for other campaigns. Both of them bit down hard and vomited all over the table. I even got an “I told you so” from the rest of the group in one case.

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. 

This is a little problematic. At the start of campaign, a GM might not know what skills are going to be important. The players decide to go to sea and suddenly sailing's important and riding never gets used. I think GMs do know what elements they don’t usually bring to a game or they handwave, and should be honest about those. At the very least, give players the opportunity to switch those out.

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, don’t 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.