Entirely unrelated to this post here -> over on storygames, they’re kind of talking about the same sort of thing I brought up in the last post: here. I’m not sure if it’s something you’d want to read all the way through, but there’s interesting stuff there — I particularly like Paul and Ralph (Valamir)’s thoughts on things.
It also kind of parallels this other thought I’ve been poking at since Monday night, which is what this post is about.
Monday night, Tim and Kate and I were talking about gaming stuff (as we sometimes do between frames of bowling). We’d started out talking about that last post and the authorship/acting issue. That drifted into other areas, such as the problems with splitting the party (it doesn’t bother me a bit, but it bothers pretty much everyone else, and I wonder if I can’t solve it universally across all our games with a little social contract related to playing NPCs), and eventually got over to this other topic, which Tim broached with the following (paraphrased):
There are games, like DnD, for example, that have a minimum and a maximum amount of fun. Unless you get some kind of truly transcendent session, there’s a maximum amount of fun you will have with that system, but there’s also a guaranteed minimum amount of fun you will have [Doyce says: “that would be my ’20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours’ experience]. The upside there is that, even in a worse-case scenario, unless the group totally implodes, you’re guaranteed x amount of DnD-like fun.
PTA (and other story-games) have no minimum and maximum, which is both bad and good — the maximum can go off the charts, but it can also potentially be absolutely zero fun at all — even negative-fun.
And yeah, you can nitpick that and say things like “well, that all depends on familiarity with the system and blah blah blah”, but the basic idea stands, and I agree with it.
There are games you can kind of phone in. DnD’s a reasonable example: if you’re brain dead from a long day, you just kinda want to crack some jokes, eat some pretzels, stab orcs in their stinky orc-faces, and take their stuff. You can be somewhat assured of having at least x amount of that kind of fun if you just show up, assuming the group is functional.
But that is not the case with some story-games. PTA, for example. You can’t just phone it in – everyone has to kind of be on their game or the game itself becomes less fun or unfun for everyone when it’s the tired/disengaged-person’s turn. There are lots of games like that: PTA is one, but Don’t Rest Your Head is on there also, and I don’t think you have to put a lot of work into thinking of others — The Roach, DitV, Mortal Coil… hell, I just think of any game where, if I suspect the players are going to show up brain-dead, I want to switch to another game for the night due to the impending sense of personal exhaustion from carrying the added load.
I’m not assigning a value of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here. There’s times when you WANT to shoot for the stars in a way that DnD just can’t handle. Other times, that kind of no-brainer play appeals, because the idea of an all-in game is just exhausting.
There are even a few story-games (or indie games) that allow this kind of … let’s call it cruise-control play. From my direct experience, off the top of my head, these include:
- In a Wicked Age (provided the GM is throwing something in the face of the tired player for them to face)
- Spirit of the Century (acknowledging that this is not really a story game, by design)
- Mouse Guard (presumably, then, BW/BE)
- Sorcerer (don’t laugh – I can throw Bangs at anyone and almost always get SOME kind of interesting reaction)
Are they BETTER when everyone’s engaged and actively contributing? Sure. So is DnD. That’s not the point.
Heck, one of Vincent’s own criticisms of IaWA is that it lets people just roll dice without exerting some effort, which results in less interesting conflicts. He’s working on a new game right now whose main design goal is to make that sort of play impossible; as I understand it, in that new game, if everyone isn’t putting forth effort to deeply describe the environment and actions in that environment, then the game will just… stop.
Which is… well, that MIGHT be over-engineering a solution too far in the other direction. I don’t want the game to BREAK if everyone isn’t totally on their a-game, right? Bad enough when that happens and the game just gets sluggish.
Obviously, we want to play in a game with active and energetic player input… with lots of in-character play and emotion and stuff. And it’s really cool when a game encourages that kind of caring in the players and activity at the table and gives us tips and tricks and built-in stuff to help make that happen… but it’s asking a bit much when a game flat out requires it. Some of this should be our job at the table, you know? Socially?
I think that a ‘play your balls off or the game breaks’ design is going to take us to a place where the maximum fun is … sure … really amazingly high — and the minimum takes us somewhere so crappy we didn’t even know it existed until now.
Sometimes, there’s something to be said for coasting; for knowing, going in, that we’re guaranteed at least x amount of a certain kind of fun.
There’s other times when you want to break the needle.