Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Things We Think About Games: Books I Like

"I feel like all board games could have the same name - which one of my friends is a competitive ***hole? Tonight we played 'steve.'" - Demetri Martin

Mea Culpa
Back about a year and a half ago I bought Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball's collection, Things We Think About Games. At the time I said I wasn't sure if it was worth the price tag, $20 for a slim volume. I enjoyed the book...but was uncertain if it measured up. Come forward to today, and I have to say that it is. For me, at least, it has been worth the money.

I say that because I've reread the book at least three times now. I find myself picking up and thumbing through it, remembering ideas I'd forgotten, disagreeing with some conceptions, and coming around to agreeing with things I shook my head at a couple of months ago. In short, unlike many other books about games, this book pays off the rereading (examples of one's that don't hold up over time or are uneven...the Second Person collection or Gygax's Role-Playing Mastery). That means I've gotten more than my money's worth in ideas out of this book.

What Is It?
The book itself is simple- a series of pages, each with a single idea about games: role-playing, board, video, card and so on. In some cases that idea's enough- the statement of it makes you think. In other cases, the contributors expand briefly on that idea. The book opens with a brief foreward by Robin Laws- a game author whose every word I admittedly follow and reread with a stalker-like fascination. That's followed by great and lengthy introduction by Wil Wheaton who expands on his philosophy of "Don't be a Dick."

The main body of the book is made up of 101 of these thoughts from Hindmarch and Tidball. They range from the seemingly obvious or the almost zen riddle approach. In the same way we move from the abstract to the eminently practical. I'm torn a little, between my desire to provide an example, and my desire not to give anything away. I'll only provide one-

Sometimes I can see your cards when you hold them that way. Sometimes I will let you know.

Sometimes I won't.
I think what's really admirable throughout the book is the economy of language and writing. I'll admit that some of my first impression came from the open and sparse graphic design, with few words on a page. You get a number, the statement, often a brief explanation, and then a set of tags for the idea's category. From that presentation I draw a new idea not in the book:

Word count has never been an accurate measure of the quality of an rpg product.

The more I reread, flip through, pick out an idea, the more I realize how well the authors have designed it. And I imagine they must have had to restrain themselves from going on and on about certain ideas. I know when I read some of these, I immediately start thinking and adding detail. That's a gamer habit, and Things We Think About Games plays to that.

After the main section, book continues on with a series contributions from a series of excellent game designers and authors: Ken Hite, Jon Kovalic, Fred Hicks, Michelle Nephew and others. There's some great stuff there- often coming from a new perspective such as publishing and rules layout. Two longer and more unified articles follow. The first "Seven Lessons Learned from Warcraft" takes the kinds of situations and tasks of MMORPGs and shows how they apply to life, not just to other kinds of games. It's funny, real and great. In some ways it is an echo of the self-development book I imagine Dave B/Wavemotion writing someday (a blog you should be reading). The last article, by S. John Ross, presents what he sees as the five key elements of any game and gaming situation- a great framework for examining them.

I liked this book the first time I read it. But I also dismissed it will far too faith praise. I've realized that in many cases Things We Think About Games articulated problems or ideas about gaming that I hadn't been able to. In a couple of cases they lifted a burden of worry from my shoulders. They made me see the difficulty in a new light, and I let it go. I feel goofy saying that, but it is true. If you like games in general, you should read this book- well-designed, well-presented and fun. Beyond that, it is a game book you'll find yourself going back to reread again and again.

That's my review- but since it is a little short, I'll finish by reworking an earlier post (9/09) which was inspired by this book. These are mine, but are examples of the kinds of things 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 Poop 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.

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.

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.

Big Finishes Can Save a Game
If I'm watching a movie that's slow and lame and bores me, but the ending knocks it out of the park-- that is the part I'm going to remember. The opposite holds true, if a movie's great and then the ending is a let down. The same thing holds for campaigns, one-shots, arcs and sometimes sessions. No pressure there, I'm just saying.

Something Every Week
Something should happen every session. After a session, I should be able to point at something interesting that occurred. If there was a fight, something interesting should have happened in that fight. I ought to be able to tell a relatively non-boring story about the session. If not, then we're not doing something right.

Never Say There's Nothing for Me to Buy
Really-- there's nothing your character wants to buy? You've hit the nadir of your abilities? Why don't I put that to the test then. If you want me to bring my GM whipping stick out and not in a good, "I get time at the table" but more in a "my character's out for how many sessions?" way, tell me this.

Know Who's Playing
At any particular moment, you should know who is talking to the GM or interacting in character with another player. If you're not aware of that then there's a pretty good chance you're talking over someone or interrupting a scene. People zone out, and that's OK, but not when you stomp on other people's enjoyment.

Poo Flies Both Directions
Trash-talking and poking fun at other players is a part of the game. However if you go down that path, you'd better be prepared to get some of that splattered on you. In other words, don't dish it out if you can't take it. Obviously there's a question of tone and level to be considered here-- make sure you keep things on the same level or in the same spirit as the other person.

It is Small Table
You've got a lot of people usually around a table, plus the various books, papers, food, drinks, dice, miniatures and so on. Be respectful of other people's stuff and don't crowd them out. Imagine you're at a nice dinner and keep those manners. If someone ends up looking at your character sheet or stuff by accident, don't get shitty. Most of the time that's an accident.

Yes, People Can Read Your Body-Language
If you're irritated, if you aren't enjoying yourself, if you're just a ****wit- people will know it. They can see you cross your arms, can see you pull your stuff back close to you and get defensive, and see you shut down. Don't act innocent if people ask about it later. You're in a small area with these people for several hours-- gamers are notoriously oblivious, but they'll pick up on that. Try to relax and get through the moment of what's bothering you. Get up and stretch if you need to-- and address your problem after the game. If it is just that you're in a bad mood, say so at the table and apologize. Being in a bad mood, on the other hand, doesn't give you license to make other people miserable.

No Plan Ever Survives Contact with the Player Characters.
Get used to it.

Some people imagine themselves as iconic heroes, untouched and untouchable by the world. These are usually uninteresting characters. Characters who can't evolve or can only evolve along predetermined lines imagined by the player at the start-- those are boring characters. Be reactive to experiences and see how the unexpected shapes you.

Compromise does not Automatically = Failure
Other versions of the iconic characters mentioned above have to have things their way. They can't compromise their codes and rules. In some cases, that's a good challenge- a brings about questions about those codes in themselves and others. But more often than not, we get Rorschach like characters. Characters who can't adjust and work with a group shouldn't be made up to be played with a group. A game is a back and forth of argument, compromise, solution and progression.

Interparty Fighting Sucks
There are some games that encourage this-- Paranoia as the best example. But there are some others- an Amber RPG Throne War or Wilderness of Mirrors. However the bottom line is that these experiences will come over to haunt you. They'll color other games, irritate people, and provide fodder for later payback which can destroy another game. There are exceptions- like one shots. But generally be prepared that even a game that's declared to have that purpose and be isolated has a pretty good chance of coming back to bite you in the ass. And for a normal game where you let this happen, especially late in the game, it can be bad. You may have to suspend disbelief to keep people from going after each other, but you're already operating in a fantasy world-- so what's the problem there.

You Don't Own NPCs
Other people can talk to them too...don't get upset about it.

Tick, Tick, Tick...
Understand that when you start talking about WoW, a timer starts in my head. You've got about thirty-minutes (plus or minus ten) before I want to move on to another topic. I think that's pretty generous.

The Future is Now
Computers at the game table were a great idea when we thought about that twenty years ago. Today, not so much. Bonus: yes, it is a little rude when you're playing away with your iPhone constantly when other people are taking their scene.

Don't Threaten to Burn My House Down if My House Has Burned Down in the Past.
If you'd played with people long enough odds are pretty good you know what irritates them. That's part of the art of banter at the table. But you also probably know what really pisses them off. Know the difference and don't use that in the game.

Count to Five
If someone asks the GM a question, do a five count before you jump in to answer. Give them a chance to respond, and if they look around for input, then go ahead and speak your mind. Even, if not especially, not rules questions.

Take a Penny, Leave a Penny
If you're drinking my pop, would it hurt you to bring some to contribute every once in a while?

Wasn't There Another Stone Giant There?
If the GM forgets something bad, don't remind them. On the one hand, they may have honestly forgotten, in which case they'll remember it later, do a face-palm, and pretend nothing happened. On the other hand, the GM may be deliberately ignoring it to move the scene forward or to keep from killing the party off.


  1. I'm sorry I threatened to burn down your house.

  2. I use that because the phrasing of it sounds good! But I think it might also be better put as:

    "Don't Say You're Going to Run a Norse God After I Just Finished Running a Campaign Arc Retiring Norse Gods from the Game"

    Still to my mind one of the most deliberately irritating moves I've seen at the game table- in the most passive-aggressive way possible.

    OTOH Seeker died, so that makes things cool.

  3. S'a fabulous article. I had thought about responding to a few points before I realized how many there are; now I think I'll just point my players this way!

  4. I love these lessons, because they apply to life away from the table too. In a similar vein, a comics editor who took similar lessons from her job, and used them as a new mom:

    "...avoid saying “no” at all costs."

    "That doesn’t mean you have to agree to the requests, it just means that you lay out the facts and let the other party reach their own conclusions. To wit: Yes, you can have it in one week, but it will suck. Yes, we’ll tie it to a movie if you can exceed your budget. Yes, your child can be in it if you’ll sign a release form, send a picture, and wait an extra week. Yes, we can ask Stan Lee to write it, if you’re comfortable being rejected by Stan Lee. In the end, people would usually be eager to work something out, no conflict necessary."

  5. "Still to my mind one of the most deliberately irritating moves I've seen at the game table- in the most passive-aggressive way possible."

    You know, I ran into him at the comic book store a while back and he asked me to play in his new game. I'm starting to think I should...