Friday, September 23, 2016
Gaming Labels and their Limits
I do not particularly find the labels of “traditional”, “old school” or “story” as applied to various roleplaying games useful. My primary complaint with these terms is that they do not adequately describe any of the features of the game. They are vague terms mostly aligned with a perceived social situation more than any particular gameplay mechanics.
I have been criticized in this opinion by being told that OSR and Storygamers are two different groups of people and I should be able to tell them apart. Yeah, they are different groups of people and they will tell you “I’m a storygamer” or “I’m an OSR gamer” just fine. Most of them are fine and most of the people I know will play games that are placed in either category. Every once in a while, you’ll get a story gamer claiming that Dungeons and Dragons and other older games aren’t really roleplaying games and are just miniature wargames. On the flip side you’ll get OSR gamers claiming that games like Fate aren’t real roleplaying games either because they allow players too much control.
For my part, I see two groups of people that sit down around a table, make up characters and control that character’s responses to situations that are laid out by a player referred to as a Game Master or some other flavorful term. Said GM acts as a referee when there are questions about the rules and controls the actions of NPCs. To me the first major difference between a board game and a tabletop roleplaying game is whether or not the final rules authority lies with the rule book or a GM. When a player wants to do something the original creators of the game did not anticipate or create a system for, the GM can decide to house rule it on the fly where as in a board game you’re stuck without that option for the most part.
I used to compare the dichotomy to the absurd idea of a baseball player and a football player each claiming that the other’s game wasn’t really a sport. This comparison doesn’t track however because I can at least tell the difference between football and baseball. I only have a vague sense of what separates story games and OSR games. In general, I’ve found that it’s a matter of “this is an OSR game because OSR people say it is an OSR game.” Traditional games are usually older games, but certain new games will advertise themselves as a traditional roleplaying game as well, so even that definition fall flat.
Some might point to the limited race and class options in games like Dungeons and Dragons, but that doesn’t work as an identifier. Several traditional games use a point buy system that has no set templates and several more recent games considered to be innovative, such as Apocalypse World, also use fixed templates. So template-based games operating on a class/race/level type mechanic aren’t inherently traditional or non-traditional.
It’s not the use of dice either. The first diceless games appeared in the very early 90s well before people started talking about games being traditional or non-traditional. For that matter, most of the modern games also use dice in one way or another. So, again, the use of dice does not really tell us whether a game can be called traditional.
Player influence on the world is often a category that people assign to more recent games, but again, mechanical support for players adding to the overall story has been around since the 80s. It has always been possible for a player to write up a character background and present it to the GM who could integrate that background to their story. This had been the suggested practice of TSR for pretty much its entire existence. Beyond that, games like GURPS or Champions would allow a player to create an organization or villain in the form of a hunted tied to their character’s back story. So again, player story influence is another element that exists both in games considered non-traditional and games considered traditional.
Player agency or control over rolls is a bit more modern, but the first player resources for influencing rolls after the fact were introduced in the late 80s and early 90s again. Modern games make use of this mechanic more heavily than some of the older games, but it would be wrong to say that it doesn’t exist in traditional games. So, again, this is not a useful determiner for what is and isn’t a traditional game.
Fortune-at-the-end and fortune-in-the-middle are recent terms I’ve run across and I think I can reasonably say that fortune-in-the-middle is a feature that almost entirely appears in games frequently labeled as story games, but I can’t make that determination for sure. In addition, not all story games have this feature and thus it doesn’t really work as firm determiner either.
As I go down the list of recognizable features of games, and some few of them are legitimately very recent additions to the arsenal of available mechanics, it becomes more and more clear that traditional games are considered traditional games because people who identify themselves as traditional gamers have decided that they are, indeed traditional. The same is true for story games. The identifiers of “traditional”, “OSR” and “story” tend to appear to me more along the ways of short hand statements that “X group of people generally like this game.” Even then, the problem becomes that "X group of people call themselves X because they like Y and Z games" and so it becomes a case of circular reasoning.
The terms Gamist, Narrative and Simulationist I did find useful. These are very clear and objective descriptions of how a game is designed and the sort of personalities that would enjoy playing them. Unfortunately, these terms are out of favor due to the fact that the person who originally came up with them took what was a rational set of three poles and categories that could give a rough idea of the sort of game a particular title was, and manipulated it in ways meant to prove his personal biases. This is a parallel to the situation where the Celsius system of temperature measurement was originally set with water’s freezing point at 100 degrees and its boiling point at 0 degrees because in this way the man who came up with the system could easily manipulate arguments to make his personal crackpot theories seem reasonable. Fortunately, scientists realized that the basic idea behind the Celsius system was rational and simple extricated it from its originator’s inane theories. The GNS categorizations did not benefit from this same rational approach. Instead a lot of gamers were so insulted by the originator’s theories that they essentially through the useful parts away along with the dross.
To be perfectly frank, the overall theories of Ron Edwards do not appeal to me. Not the least because I believe either he or some of his circle have claimed that people who prefer generic systems, such as myself, must have some sort of brain damage. They are rife with some rather horrible pseudoscience and what would be called bigotry if it weren’t leveled at individuals who preferred game styles that he didn’t appreciate. I am rather in line with Gleichman’s criticisms that Edwards mistakes what are elements of any game system for the ultimate goals of the game itself. I am also in agreement with Gleichman's criticism of Edwards’ idea that any mixing of the three categories would produce an incoherent game. Human psychology just does not work the way that Edwards seems to think it does and games are a part of human behavior and psychology. Labels such as those in GNS have a practical use as long as you understand their limits, which Edwards doesn’t seem to. No one is going to be purely gamist, purely narrativist or purely simulationist.
In this regard, I find these terms as roughly useful for a general impression of a particular system. Or I would, if they were regularly used and the terms had an objective definition. Unfortunately, as said, they are out of favor due to being connected to Edwards’ theories and they also lack any objective definition. There is no authority enforcing a set definition of these terms. As such, while the GNS labels are rational in and of themselves and have the potential to be useful, they are not currently utilized in any effective manner and they are overly connected to a more irrational theory.
As such, I do not label games as a Gamist, Narrativist or Simulationist any longer. Nor do I label things as OSR or Story games. I’ve rarely found a binary categorization to be useful except in the most extremely limited sense such as “on” or “off”. Currently, there doesn’t exist an overall categorization system that really seems useful as such I generally try to focus on the actual features of the game itself.
To start with, there is character generation and advancement. This is currently fairly close to a binary categorization, despite my earlier statement, but it really exists as more of a sliding scale between templates and point-buy.
The oldest style of character creation is template-based character creation. This is typified in Dungeons and Dragons where a character will choose a race and a class and combine that to form the stats of their character. Templates come with a pre-set collection of capabilities and talents. Most of the time, the player will have some choice over what options they take or they might simply get the same set that every other person who chose that template gets. The Class/Race is pervasive in template games but most of the time the chosen race is a minor template and the Class is the more dominant feature. In many cases, character statistics are also determined outside of the template. On the extreme end of templates, you have 1st Edition D&D or Feng Shui 2 where the only character customization you are capable of is in re-defining the character fluff. Closer to the middle you have the Powered by the Apocalypse games where the chosen templates have a great deal of flexibility.
Point-buy is only a little bit younger than template based systems. In this case, you have a set number of points and with these points you buy your statistics, skills, racial features, powers and other such things. It is often possible to also purchase weaknesses to acquire more points. I believe that the oldest example of this is Champions and, thus, the Hero System. There are no set items that you automatically get aside from some initial default abilities that come to everybody. One player might decide to spend most of their points on their characteristics and have only a handful of special skills or abilities, another might get tons of skills with no powers or special talents and average characteristics and some would take powers from the setting and have minimal skills or characteristics.
I’ve tended to compare template-based games to going out to eat at a restaurant. There is a menu, most restaurants will allow you to request changes to the menu, but sometimes you’ll have a cook that insists that the menu is only served as it is described and that any changes are forbidden. It is easy and quick and lets you get right into the act of enjoying your meal. On the flip side it is very restrictive and you can only take the options you’re provided with. If you’re reasonably fortunate, you’ll have a cook willing to make a few substitutions here or there and if you’re really lucky, you’ll have a cook ready to do a highly specific special order.
By comparison, point buy is more like going to the supermarket, buying the ingredients and then combining them yourself to get the desired result. You are able to make whatever side dishes or entrée you want and add whatever flavors or spices you desire. The end result will be too your tastes in terms of portion size and flavors. There aren’t any real limits aside from what the supermarket does or does not carry. The problem here is that the result is also limited by your skills as a cook and you could end up leaving out a key ingredient and end up with one of the dishes distasteful or even inedible. In addition, there is the matter of option paralysis. Some people can be completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possibility this affords and won’t know where to start.
I was tempted to add descriptive based character creation but this isn’t really fully separate character creation based method. For example, the game I would most label as descriptive based in Fate Core with its Aspects but it’s really a sort of points-based character creation. You have points to spend on Aspects, points to spend on Skills and points to spend on Stunts. The Aspects are the part I’d call descriptive based, but they’re expansions of the effects based game system that was introduced by Champions where the player had the ability to determine the special effects of their attacks. Likewise, Powered by the Apocalypse games are mostly template based character generation with an overlay of individual determination for how each template is expressed.
I could go through some of the other categories I look at when analyzing a game: conflict resolution, health simulation and other such things but there wouldn’t be too much point to it because as much as these things are useful to me in analyzing a game, figuring out how the pieces work together and the best approach for playing or running it, they are not useful in categorizing a game and determining whether or not I will enjoy a game. When I tried to use these different analyses to determine whether or not I would enjoy a game I ended up being wrong.
Judging by the games I very much loved and those I either tolerated or actively disliked, then I should have absolutely loved Savage Worlds. It’s point-based with clear and intuitive mechanics and possessing the capacity to simulate several genres. In addition, I quite enjoy the settings that they produce for the game. I have even done freelance work on a Savage Worlds game. However, in practice I have found Savage Worlds to be inexplicably and frustratingly blah. I’ve just about given up trying to figure out just why Savage Worlds gives me no real spark of enjoyment even while many people I know quite enjoy it.
Likewise, by the same token, I should have barely tolerated Monster of the Week given that it is a template-based game where I usually find myself frustrated by the limits such games place on character generation. Instead I find that the manner in which a template is implemented in this and other Apocalypse Engine games is remarkably flexible and helps to create a wide variety of characters. I absolutely love MotW and several other PbtA games.
Really, I’ve only ever found one thing that insures I will enjoy a game: a good GM with a firm understanding of the systems being used.
I have run or played pretty much every kind of game mentioned. Dungeons and Dragons (every edition including Pathfinder), Champions, Monster of the Week, Fate Core, Strands of Fate, Dresden Files, Vampire: The Masquerade, Scion, Call of Cthulhu, GUMSHOE, Mutants and Masterminds, Masks, Maid RPG, Star Wars d6, Star Wars FFG, Star Wars d20, D20 Modern/Future, Legend of the Five Rings, and many others. Some systems are better designed than others, but a GM who understands the strengths and weaknesses of the system, has a good ability to improvise, is an entertaining storyteller and knows how to manage a group of people unobtrusively is the one essential element I’ve so far found. This makes the various GM-less games that I’ve seen around recently into things I find interesting and would like to try out sometime. In which case, of course, then my estimation of the essential element might shift from “a good GM” to being “a good group.”
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