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Playing it wrong

Playing it wrong

Conventionally there is a tension in a roleplaying game and that tension exists in exactly those two words: roleplaying and game.

Roleplaying is the more actorly side of the equation, the one that emotes and embodies that revels in the character and the imagination of the player.

The game might initially seem more prosaic but it is in fact the driver. It is because there is a game that things happen and the world and the characters change. The game aspect defines what changes, when and how. Without the game element it is hard to differentiate roleplaying from improvised theatre.

Traditionally this tension has been relatively trivial and muted. The purpose has been to play a game and the traditional props of character progression and advancement have provided the skeleton of the experience which players may choose to ignore but which never the less frame the action.

However the arrival of indie game designers and the general democratisation of game creation has led to a much sharper scrutiny of the gaming mechanics and system used in RPGs.

For the most part this has been great, we’ve seen fundamental problems solved through the analysis of purpose versus outcome for example. Games have been ruthlessly streamlined, creating better experiences that are easier to learn. The need for “house rules” has been seriously minimised.

It also creates this dilemma, with a minimal ruleset then every rule and mechanic matters if you are to experience the game “properly”.

By “properly” I mean in the way the designer intended and such that the play experience embodies the purpose of the game system.

Let’s take a simple example. In Burning Wheel if you do not play the Beliefs system “properly” then you will never really experience the play escalation and Artha rewards system fully.

That is to say, if the GM does not put the characters into situations that challenge their beliefs or the players do not reflect those beliefs in play then you do not encounter one of the mechanical reward systems in the mechanics.

Therefore the experience of two groups: one playing according to the intention of the rules and one playing so as to ignore the rules; will be radically different.

Neither experience will be “wrong” and it would still be subjective as to which was “better”. However it would be undeniable that both groups would have different perspectives as to how the game “worked”.

Always thus?

The ability to ignore, mangle and deliberately change rules is one of the things that is great about RPGs as a hobby and which has probably contributed to its longevity. So why does this matter now?

Well I think there are two trends that are creating friction in gaming groups when rules really matter.

Shared narrative

A number of games are now experimenting with devolved or shared narrative authority. Essentially letting the traditional GM role become blurred with that of a player.

There are a number of advantages to this; such games tend to be more satisfying to players as they have a greater input into the kind of game they want to play and they avoid putting the onus on one participant to provide the group’s entertainment.

However in the absence of traditional forms of authority (the GM over the world and the NPCs, the players over their characters) sharp disagreements can arise over resolving conflicts. Once a mechanic hands over authority to one of the players to create a truth in the game then traditional authorities are usurped. The noble king can die and a PC may reveal dark secrets.

Implicitly most of these games have the improvisation rule of “Yes, and…” at their heart. Traditional RPGs allow a player or a GM to flattly say “No”.

In these types of games restoring the traditional vetoes might seem a harmless thing to do, some systems actually explicitly grant a veto to a controlling player over something like the death of a character.

However the rules of improvisation are there for a reason. Spontaneous narrative is easier to shutdown than it is to start. Allowing vetos creates a greater likelihood of driving the story and hence the game into a cul de sac.

It traditional game systems the lure of experience, gold and advancement in general always provides a way to restart the narrative. A game that relies on the consequences of conflict resolution to drive forward the game can come unstuck.

In games that use mechanics to grant narrative control to a player the results of that control have to be accepted by the other players. Playing it wrong here risks killing the game.

Focused experience

The second trend is to deliberately not create game systems that seek to emulate a broad range of experience and situations. Instead what might once have been described as a scenario becomes the game. The game and the scenario are one thing and as a result the game rules are entirely centred around generating an atmosphere and bringing matters to a conclusion.

Here the situation is that if the players start to play things “wrong” they start to fight against the rule system. What Sorenson and Crane identify as the reward system starts to misfire. Now ultimately player inventiveness and agency means that any fight they begin against the rule system will usually go in their favour but often in a way that wrecks the game.

One example of this going badly wrong is when there are rule structures that emphasise, for example, bringing a scene to a close. Microscope puts importance not on how much fun people are having in a scene but whether the question posed when the scene began has been answered or not.

Some people object to ending a good scene in a way that may seem premature. Microscope violates the rules of storytelling in that it tries to jump into the middle of the action without any introduction and jumps away before the characters or actions are necessarily resolved.

However this rule is absolutely vital to make the game work. If you work to resolve and explain things in a scene then there is no reason to come back to it. The game requires questions to be left hanging to drive the game forward. Too much narrative tidiness and you do not really experience the non-linear story telling the game is capable of delivering.

Bad wrong fun

People often raise an objection to game playing on the basis that player enjoyment or fun is more important than obeying the rules of the game. Indeed there are game principles that state explicitly that maximising the fun of a game should be the goal of a roleplaying game.

However if the game you are playing is not about maximising player fun but instead to create the experience of a situation running out of control or intrigue and self-sabotage in a fantasy vision of courtly life then you have to put the fun to one side if you want to capture the experience of the game.

Sure you are having fun but it is the wrong kind of fun.

In the past I have been on the side of player freedom and playing the kind of game you want to and not the one that was prescribed by the rules.

This was frankly because the rules that we have had to play with over the last twenty years were, for the most part, pretty bad. Roleplaying worked in spite of the rules, not because of them.

I’m now changing my view, particuarly for indie games. Game design has come on massively in roleplaying now and where games have thoughtful design and intermeshing settings and mechanics I think it is helpful to first fully engage with the game as written, i.e. to try and have the “right” kind of fun.

Only then can you gain the experience and expertise to actually look at how the game experience intersects with the kind of experience you want to have and adapt accordingly.

For games like Apocalypse World and Lady Blackbird it is better to copy the format of the game and produce a “hack” of the game than try to write a scenario that adapts the rules of game to your interests.

Play wrong deliberately

People have been playing roleplaying rules incorrectly for years but the difference now is that there is a certain wilfulness in not engaging with a properly playtested system.

Sticking to previous ideals of player freedom and individual creative expression means that certain games are just not going to work for you. Consequently people are condeming games as bad when they are not able to adapt their playing style to the requirements of the system.

Instead I think there should be a conscious decision to understand what a game mechanic wants to promote and a table discussion as to why a player who has agreed to play the game refuses to enter the spirit of the game.

This is a new phase of metagaming but as game designers have had to advance their understanding of game systems so now must the players.

Subpages (1): Personal anecdotes