Tension is great. Tension is the heart of all creation, really. Tension between characters, between worlds, between mindsets, work to create narrative and drama – not to mention comedy. Tension between the intent and the object, the paint and the frame, the creator and the viewer and the object and the depiction – these create the genius of painting. Tension between the thing and its referent make language. Tension between the stage and the audience creates theatre.
I think one of the things I like most about RPGs, the reason I can’t get them out of my head, is because they are so full of tension. There’s tension between player and GM, between what the player wants and what the character wants, between IC and OOC speech, between the avatar, author and audience stances, between the real world and the imagined, even between game chatter and social chatter. Most importantly, RPGs are at their conception a tension between improvised shared storytelling and indiviudal-level skirmish miniature wargames. Pulling on these tensions doesn’t just make RPGs work and excel, but the very tension between the last two defines the very existence of RPGs.
This is not news. Nor is it news that much of RPG design has been pulling backwards and forwards on this tension in order to squeeze new angles out of it. However, sometimes I think people are so busy pulling it towards their direction they forget that a lot of those elements were already in place before they started pulling, and rather than add new elements, you’ve REPLACED old ones, and not always successfully.
What am I talking about? Well one simple example is how a lot of indie games – like the Diana Jones winner Fiasco – have rebirthed the Wandering Monster Table. It’s a little different but the idea is the same – thematically grouped but randomly assigned plot elements engage into the narrative space, with nobody’s consent and nobody’s control. It’s striking that it took us thirty five years to come back to exactly the same mechanic – and then mistake it for being revolutionary.
A deeper example comes from something I’ve also encountered lately, wherein many indie games divide the game up into Scenes. A Scene is set by a GM or a narrator for the round, or the fellow players, with certain elements stipulated by certain parties based on certain rules – perhaps only X characters can be in the scene, or perhaps only the narrator can determine the theme of the encounter, or whatever. Then the scene plays out.
Of course, this is how roleplaying has always worked. When Bob says “Thungar is going to the bar to see if there’s any rumours about the dungeon”, Bob the player is immediately demanding a scene. And we also suddenly know a lot about this scene. We know where it will take place (a bar), the primary characters (Thungar and a Barkeep), and most importantly, the central tension of the scene (will Thungar find something out?) and when that tension is resolved. We can also imply a lot from the statement – the GM, in most traditional games – has an implied ability to describe the tavern, but the PCs generally have input as well. Bob may ask if there is a barwench instead, knowing his comeliness will give him a bonus to his rumour gathering, or because it fits the keys of his character. And so on and so forth.
My point is this: a lot of design is making explicit things people are doing implicitly, and that’s fine, but you need to be careful that in doing so, you don’t end up producing something that is less useful. That is, some of the “A Scene Happens” mechanics I’ve read don’t give a clear idea of who is in a scene, or where it is, or how it starts, ends or what the central tension is. They also don’t help provide ideas of what kinds of scenes there are, whereas a well -established genre like D&D has a lot of such implied scenes in our mental quiver. Other times, they do provide all the information but they make it a lot more formalised and controlled, so that now Bob can’t ask about the barwench, or he can but he needs to spend a Plot Point to do it, or the GM must do the same. Now don’t get me wrong, making a rule explicit can totally encourage people to do it – but at the same time, having to spend a resource to do it can discourage what came easily.
Likewise, some explicit rules put control in the players hands, but again, we already had that. If the GM tried to set a scene like “you’re riding down the road when…” and Bob said “hey, no, before we go, I want to talk to the barman”, then Bob would get to do that. Obviously, this sometimes led to conflict about whether Bob could do that or not. Obviously, making these things explicit allows for new ideas about game design. But not so obviously is they very often take away Bob’s already implied freedom to insist on going to the bar, and that there be a barwench there.
To summarise: sometimes we are trying to reinvent the wheel so it is much more clear and easy to see who has repsonsibility for what. But in doing so, some designers forget that people already know how to set up scenes because we’ve been doing it since Gygax first went into Greyhawk, and you have to be very careful not to make what we’ve all been doing more difficult or complicated than it was before. That can be interesting but it can also be frustrating.
It also can end up changing things you don’t intend. For example, as a reactive GM I tend to let my players define the scenes they want. In a game which shares around GMing responsibilities, I have to frame scenes MORE often, not less, making me work harder as a GM. And I have to play as well. It’s lose-lose.
One final example: in OctaNe, a great game, the mechanic centres around not on success or failure, but on who describes the outcome. But at my table, we look at the die rolls and let everyone suggest what it means, and the most awesome description was the one we go with. So OctaNe’s mechanic makes my games less awesome.
Now, again, this does not stop OctaNe from being a good idea. Indeed, all of this wheel invention is good precisely because it throws what groups do implicitly into stark, explicit focus. And sometimes what groups do is very different, and no designer can account for all of that. But surely we know about how D&D players set a scene, and surely we can see that that standard works, provides huge amounts of information, and allows heaps of freedom, and thus be mindful that our mechanics that do it differently never provide less information, nor permit less freedom.
On the other hand, maybe we have forgotten. DoE has a task resolution mechanic, and one reviewer asked what happens if the roll fails. Now, it’s all well and good to go “hey, failure can mean anything” but at the same time, perhaps not forget what failure traditionally means (ie your attempted action fails). The old fundamentals don’t HAVE to be thrown out to make room for the new, not when they a) work, and b) have always included scene-setting and other improv and narrative devices.
Anyhoo. Just a thought.