This post is going to have double purpose: To address the issues of player agency and narrative control, and to tie into a short review (as a player) of the new Firefly system.

This weekend, I got a chance to play in a game of Firefly by Margaret Weis Productions run by one of the systems leads, Mark Truman, for the game. I figured it might be interesting to see if the experience of the game would be different, and if my opinions of the game would be changed by it. Along the way, there were some interesting chances to speak with the others at the table.

Mr. Truman had had a chance to peruse the previous review, and we talked about the experience of the game as I (and others) saw it. One of my comments was that the assets and complications mechanic, as in Fate, was overly complex and could lead to some confusion for the players and the GM. The assumption seemed to that I didn’t understand the mechanic, which was incorrect — I did, and even saw use in it — or that my lack of skill with the system was coloring my perception of the game. This response, I thought, harkened back to some of the issues of the Is there a right way to Game? post from a few weeks ago, and brought up some interesting questions for me:

1) Is the skill or familiarity with a system intrinsically linked to perceiving a game as good or bad? Is it a case of “It’s not the game that sucks; you’re playing it wrong”? That was certainly the implication I inferred. (Which means I could have completely misread the statement — so consider that my “I could be full of shit” caveat.) 

2) By this metric, if you are very skilled with a set of rules does that make a game “good?”

 3) Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Are are skill, familiarity, and preference linked, or is this a case of correlation not being causation?

4) Is your prefreence for one system over another based on a lack of proficiency with the system?

I’m going to start with the last point first: absolutely. I’ve known plenty of gamers for whom if the rules are not GURPS, OGL d20, or Fate, they’re not playin’. (Says the guy bitterly clinging to a half dozen defunct games…) Most of these guys have also been playing the same games for years. For these people, it is familiarity that produces preference, but what about people who do venture forth and try new games? — which I have advocated in the past.

I would suggest that for these intrepid gamers, preference comes from two factors: ease of play or learning curve, and from how well a game models the genre or the setting. Ease of play usually ties to the simplicity of the core mechanic. The traditional attribute+skill (+asset or other factor) beating a target number has been pretty standard for at least 20 years. Before that, in early D&D, it was as simple as roll a d20 and get under the number for your trait (strength, etc…) The learning curve was relatively slight, with a bit of a rise when you hit combat or magic. Add a ton of math into character creation or into managing modifiers to a roll was a good way to lose a player’s interest — although GURPS and early Champions still had plenty of adherents.

More importantly, especially with the wave of newer system designs in the 1990s, were games tailored more toward role playing rather than tactical gaming with role playing rules tacked onto them (have a look at your favorite game — if the chapter on combat is twice the size as the core mechanics, we’re talking about you…) White Wolf, Call of Chthulu, Castle Falkenstein, Fudge (later Fate) were relatively simple to learn, gave the players more say in character design than race, class, etc; and oriented toward pushing story, rather than wargames with characters. This required the games to also adhere to genre convention well.

What does this have to do with preference? There are games that have lived a long and healthy life after they went out of print. Some of those were settings that would be recreated in newer games. Case in point: Why play Last Unicorm or Decipher Star Trek when FASA already did it in the 1980s. (And there are die-hard FASA fans that will not consider doing that…) LUG Trek managed to do a good job of modeling the universe of the various Star Trek television shows, and was a lot easier to learn than FASA’s version. Decipher took a lot of the LUG ideas, thought about cramming it into OGL d20, then relented and gave a bastardized version of LUG Trek that did a good job of handling all of the series (LUG had series specific core books!), but lost some of the ease of the prior set of rules. Still I jumped to Decipher…why? The core rules were easy and the game captured the feel of Trek pretty well.

Why use Spycraft when there’s Top Secret or James Bond: 007? Why buy Victoriana when there’s Castle Falkenstein? Why buy anything else when there’s GURPS? Because the new game captures the flavor of the genre you are playing in. 

If familiarity or skill with a system were so intrinsic to preference, why would people branch out? Can you look at your favorite game for a certain genre and say “this would be better, but I like this better”? I’ll start it off — Classic Cortex would probably work just as well, if not better, for espionage games such as James Bond. But JB:007 helps emulate the world of the movies better than Cortex’s mechanics would, despite being more complex. Preference here is due to familiarity, but it does not create in me the impression that other systems are not good…for this, JB:007 just does it better. Firefly does a decent job of capturing the show, but would be better at modeling Star Trek. Take that FASA guys!

Which starts to deal with point the third: Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Can a player role play well enough that the rules are incidental. After 30+ year of doing this, that’s an unequivocal YES. In other words — there’s no way to play wrong. Your “skill” as a player, nor your enjoyment of a game, is necessarily hinged on the mechanics. However, there is a way to design a game that will not play well for certain expectations. Those expectations are not wrong, nor is a preference for, say, how mechanics divvy up narrative responsibility (for instance, strong v weak GM.) Those expectations can help someone understand if running a certain system or playing with those rules is more preferable than another set of rules. (Again, see A/B test of the Firefly/Serenity rules and the “Is There a Right Way to Game?” posts.)

My response to this is — familiarity or proficiency with a system for a GM or players can make the game easier or more fun — but ultimately, the mechanics rarely make a game more fun…but they can dash it very quickly. A couple of case studies that will also play to point 2: 

Call of Chthulu is a fairly easy set of mechanics to learn, and I understood how they drove the game perfectly well. The guy running the game blew goats, so my opinion of the game has been badly tainted. I understand this preference was based on a single outlier and I have been open to trying it again…but there’s usually something I’d much rather play than a game where the point (seems to be) to see how you go mad and die. That’s not the game’s fault and Truman’s statement about GM skill is spot on here, but it also wasn’t aided by the fact I find Lovecraft-style horror unengaging — that that more taints the perception of the game and has nothing to do with familiarity of the system or the universe; a good GM could make me invest in the universe…but horror is hard to do.

Example 2: I ran Chameleon Eclectic’s version of the Babylon 5 universe for years. It has an easy base mechanic — a minus die and a plus die with the result (anywhere from a -5 to a +5) added to the skill. The combat system was a hot mess, except! I understood what it was modeling, so it made sense to me. It captured how a small injury could be instantly debilitating or not, and how a vicious injury could be leading to your very imminent demise, but not slow you down. Because I got it, I ran it well and the players quickly got a hold of the base mechanic and left the combat stuff to me to adjudicate. The rules set sucked, but because the “skill” of the GM was high, the game ran well and was, in Truman’s terms, a good game. That is wrong, however — the players and GM were good enough to rise above the limitations of a bad rules set.

Likewise, I ran Space: 1889 for years and was very familiar with it, but the limitations of the mechanics from a probability standpoint were glaringly, painfully obvious. We swapped to the Castle Falkenstein rules despite terrible combat rules (which we figured out were bad even before trying them out, but try we did.several times…) Was this due to a lack of expertise in running it? Perhaps, but they also did not model swashbuckling adventure well. We kit-bashed a version of the Lace & Steel combat rules (also a card-based game) that captured the fun of sword and fisticuffs play so well that, in one of those rare instances, they made play more fun. Players sometimes eschewed the ease gunplay for the fun of clashing blades. The new rules were not “familiar”, either, and evolved a bit over the course of play…but they accelerated the pace of fights and made it more competitive. So yes, the mechanics can aid play…but after 30 years of doing this, I can safely say it’s a rarity. Space: 1889 has a phenomenal setting that is so good game designers have started pasting it into other rules — Savage Worlds and Ubiquity. Castle Falkenstein’s steampunk meets fantasy was equally engaging but the core mechanics could not survive quirky side rules mechanics for sorcery and fighting. Again…great setting, crappy GAME.

At heart, I think the argument is between whether you think rules should help engage the players, or you players should engage with the rules. Newer indie games seem to be trying to find new ways to do the first — having the mechanics engage the players in some way by having them take part in the storytelling process. This, coupled with a recent trend of game designers wanting to view RPGs as “art” (James Franco agrees!) or “socially relevant”, leads to games more interested in the mechanics as art. They absolutely want the people playing the game to have fun, but their perception of what the fun part is, and how it is achieved might not quite jive with what their audience wants.

I would describe it this way: If you know how to tell a story, and the players are invested in theur characters and the setting, the mechanics can only hinder you. Rules light systems can capture that quite well, but in the end, good role playing and understanding the mechanics are mutually exclusive to having fun or good game rules. Familiarity can cause a better perception of the rules, but not all new games we play “suck” until we get better at them. Sometimes the mechanics enhance play, sometimes they simply disappear, and sometimes they curtail play. 

Sometimes, the game does just suck.

This post came about from my thoughts on the graph in Runeslinger’s Spectrum of Play  article, as well as his Right Way to Game posts. The first has been reblogged here on The Black Campbell, but you can pop over to his Casting Shadows page to read more. His YouTube channel is probably even more useful.

There’s a lot of thought and opinion spilled into the series of tubes on how to play role playing games. The main point of contention is between those who like a game with a defined plot versus the “sandbox”, or a style of play in which the environment and the players’ actions (hopefully) give rise to some kind of adventure.

…we each will have our favorite ways to go about [gaming], and among the voices talking about them there may be some strident calls for one way over an other…The next step was to address the nature of the play environment itself with a look at the concepts of the sandbox and the defined narrative

The quote is from Anthony Boyd (or Runeslinger), over at Casting Shadows. He has cobbled together a rather elegant continuum of play styles that address this argument. He separates the issue into matters of player agency — how much effect the player has on the narrative and outcome of a game; and defined story spectrum. I found the chart instructive in that if well describes how the the power  relationships of a role playing game between players and a game master/storyteller/etc.. or between players, is dependent on how well defined the story is. 

Spectrum1

I found this chart particularly pertinent after my recent post on a comparison test of the Firefly (Cortex) and Serenity (Cortex Plus) rules from Margaret Weis Production. In that test, we found that aspects of the system designed to spread narrative control, while fun, seemed to hamper the coherency of the story. 

He points out that …we like what we like, and given choice, we tend to pick our favorite options over the rest… Some new game may draw us in with its setting, but push us in a new or formerly avoided direction with its mechanics…” This was certainly part of the issue the gaming group had with Firefly — we’ve run Cortex for quite some time and have found it (mostly) to be an excellent set of rules for creating nuanced characters and handling most scenarios for an adventure. When it falls down, though, it tends to do it hard. One of those genres it did not handle well was superheroes. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying may have been a busy system with a lot of moving parts, but it emulated the flavor of comic books near perfectly. Firefly we all wanted to like…but we like what we like, and in this case, for not over the top science fiction, we like Cortex (the Battlestar Galactica or Cortex 1.1 version.)

But why was that the case? Partly it was a preference in most of the group for stories that have some kind of defined plotline to an episode and the campaign overall, while still allowing for character action to sharply change the outcome of the same. Firefly — like Fate and many of the new wannabe-artsy “indie” games — does that, but the ability of the players to set complications and assets added new visions of the plot that aren’t necessarily well-meshed with what has been ongoing.

To use a cinema or television analogy, you have too many writers in the writers’ room and not a strong enough head writer or executive producer to contain their disparate visions of the story or universe. All those shows that “jumped the shark” by wandering off course badly; nearly ever movie you’ve seen where you leave saying “it was so close to good!” is the result of multiple writing teams working to please a different audience in the production or direction staff of the show or movie. (Case in point: Spaight’s excellent draft for what would be Prometheus versus the disaster of Lindelof’s final script, coupled with Scott’s last minute changes.) Too many cooks, as the expression goes, spoils the soup.

In the chart above are two bands of specific points along a spectrum of implementation options ranging from ‘none’ to ‘total.’ I believe if you let your eyes roam across these bands, it should be pretty easy to spot roughly where your basic preferences lie. With a little effort, it should also be possible to spot where specific games require you to be to run them as intended. This might be useful in assessing if a game will be suitable for your group, or if an idea you have for a game will flow like you want within its confines, but I feel it has better uses yet. From my  perspective, it might offer a hint as to why a given campaign or group is or isn’t working for you, but will really shine when used to help add a new kind of scene, scenario, or mood to your toolbox of techniques.

This point is particularly well thought out. A quick look at the chart puts my gaming style at 3-4 on the player agency and the narrative of the chart. This suggests that the indie, GM-less systems aren’t going to be my cup of tea. The main reason: I really cut my teeth as a GM on espionage games where the villains had a specific plan, the players would investigate to uncover and stop it, and to emulate the spy movies we were aping, I had to design (and still do from time to time) my adventure around specific action set pieces, exposition scenes, and a denouement that was usually quasi-planned out. Player actions might cut some of these scenes, force me to add others, or change the ending, but there was an outline of “things that should happen…”

Think of it as similar to building rooms in a dungeon. The players can choose where to go, in what order and manner, but the very definition of the space and the hazards is essentially a plot based on action set pieces. So despite the appearance of a sandbox-like environment, dungeon crawling is in many ways the most restrctive – story-wise — an RPG can get. Players can have almost total agency in what they do, but ultimately the act of wandering the space of the adventure constructs action.

The sandbox gaming style is much more collaborative and reduces the role of the gamemaster or storyteller to an equal, or “but is more equal than others” position wherein they act as referee at most. This certainly has its place, but I have yet to see this style of play hold together a long-term campaign outside of LARP circles, where the gaming environment and the larger number of people require a more cooperative approach to character interaction.

The idea that your play style might dictate the sort of game you will like should seem self-evident, but is it when you are looking over the games in your LGS (or more likely perusing DriveThru these days…)? Firefly is a setting all of our gaming group enjoy, but the mechanics forced us further right on the player agency spectrum that most of us were comfortable with. I found it didn’t so much effect my style of gamemastering, but the complications mechanic forced me into narrative corners I had to duck and weave to get out of.

I’ve played in campaigns — a Shadowrun game leaps to mind from the ‘90s — where it was mostly sandbox. We were nearly all the way right on the narrative — there was a proposal put before the group we could take or leave (but wanting to do more than hang out at the bar and trade quips, we took the job) and we had to plan and execute the job with no GM input. The GM style was so hands off that the guy disappeared for about an hour and we found him working under his old project Porsche 911… Not the sort of engagement that brings folks together. The players were fully in control of the narrative for the session, and what happened is one or two of the people at the table naturally took on the “leader” role from the GM so that when he came back to the table and tried to referee the big action scene, he discovered we had managed to plan it out well enough to overcome the opposition with ease, and he obviously started moving the goal posts. It was frustrating for everyone — too many cooks in the kitchen. A modern GM might have allowed the success to happen and tried to set something up to go wrong later, or with a system like Fate tossed a complication in that would bite the players later.

In the end, is there a right way to game? No…but there is a right way for you and/or your group to game. It’s worth venturing out of your confort zone from time to time to see if you like something that isn’t quite what you are used to. I’ve been on a mission to try and like Fate, of late — both Atomic Robo and Mindjammer use it, and I like the settings…but the mechanics just don’t jive with how I or my group tend to play.

And that’s alright.