Min-Maxing Fun

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:

  • 3:16
  • 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.


  1. I almost want to call the minimum fun the ‘board game element’.

    Also, I am desperate to play some high-level 4e.

  2. The board game element, yeah. In that thread I linked, Valamir talks about how a solidly designed mechanic can exist and work fine without any fiction at all — more to the point, it SHOULD be able to, and if it can’t, the mechanic should be considered broken (even if the game as a whole is playable, thanks to fiction/play-spackle). That solid, playable-even-without-color mechanic is probably the same thing as your ‘board game element’.

    Galactic had that; you could just play the dice game. IAWA. DnD has that – is mostly that, even. Given that, Don’t Rest Your Head can probably be coasted through at a board game level, also. I like that term. Really, it’s true of any game with solid mechanics that function fine, absent any color-input from the game.

  3. I’ve had very few Story Games failures, hopefully I can keep this lucky streak going! But that means, for me, that my fun is consistently better with Story Games. But I do understand the coasting element and I make a greater effort not to be tired during my games these days.

    RE Burning Empires: It’s very much a “Story Now!” game it always benefits from player engagement. I suspect it would fail if the players tried to coast, but I hope I don’t find out.

  4. Oh, don’t get my wrong, Scott, I fully believe that any one of those ‘coastable’ story-games are better — MUCH better — when you’re engaged. Perhaps it’s fair to say that they while they provide you a guaranteed minimum fun, they still give you that nice unfettered maximum.

    BE/BW is something I’m really interested in, now that I’ve played and enjoyed Mouse Guard so much, but the rules set is such that I’d want a REALLY small group of gear-heads to learn and play it first. I love the system, but I also love how you can come in with somewhat lower energy and the system HELPS you bring some great story stuff out via the easy-to-read signposts of your beliefs, instincts, goals, traits, et cetera.

    By contrast, PTA doesn’t have as many signposts, and if you just hammer your Issue every single conflict, things get a trifle flat. It’s a big-brush, broad-strokes game, and it’s GOOD, but there are times when you want a few more points of contact would help you play. I suppose it’s not ‘coasting’ so much much as creativity through constraint. Maybe most of the PTA challenge is the challenge of the blank page? I dunno.

    And I don’t want to rag on PTA, but it does seem to be the game where low energy can make a session flounder.

  5. I agree with you on PTA. I’ve played a bunch of one-shots of PTA and it’s fantastic for that because everyone is high off of the pitch session. While I’ve only played one season of the longer game, we ran into similar problems in the latter episodes.

    I do love the signposts as well. “With Great Power…” does pretty well at that too and IAWA gives you a different set of signposts each chapter. I think there’s fodder for another blog or podcast in that topic as well.

    BE is definitely an “expert” system where “system mastery” is something to be achieved. I imagine that BW is the same way for longer games (I’ve only played “The Gift”). I think your gear-head plan is a good one and I’m glad I’m playing it with my more detail-oriented group. We are never at a lack for things the players and character want to do – in fact we usually can’t get to them all and that’s really a strength of the system even though it can get a little frustrating. So in addition to your list of signposts for BE/BW I’d add Resources and Circles tests as these often provide the direction and focus for scenes and I wouldn’t have expected that before we started playing.

  6. I think that’s where my original idea came from; Story Games work really well in one shots, because the setting and/or chargen process gives you a lot of momentum.

    But in future sessions, that momentum is very hard to maintain, and with no ‘boardgame element’ to fall back on, it’s easy to lose it completely. So as the facilitator, you end up having to do all the work that was done in the original process all over again for each session, or have the whole group pitch each session, which can be sort of a grind.

    Obviously BE/BW are not story games in that sense, since they do have a pretty solid ‘boardgame element’, even though it stretches out to cover lots of areas of play.

    It’s interesting though, because momentum over the life of a campaign is the single hardest thing to manage, IMO, regardless of game. D&D can carry you further, easier, but it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens…

  7. This is insightful! I have played some PTA (yeah I know, but it happen to be a good example for me) and it was totally flat when not pumped up and energized like a bomb with a lit fuse.

    I have noted that some games just don’t work well as, well, “games” and I kind of wondered why. I think a rpg should have a built in “cruise control” to be really good. When I started to play T&T I was amazed at the unfettered pure “win the game” attitude you could fine in those rules. There are mechanics which set up short term goals to be reached just be rolling dice and see what happens. I actually think that is a very subtle design to liberate you and go totally nuts with acting and just “story” gaming. You know you have a safety net and suspenders if you want to kick back a few minutes.

  8. There’s some really great discussion going on here. Nice work, folks.

    That said, I… I think that your notion has some merit to it, but that you’ve created a construct that is a lot harder than reality. That is, I think there are some D&D games I’ve played where it’s been negative fun. And story games that seem for me to have a real maximum on fun.

    So, as a general trend, I think you’ve noted a real phenomenon. But I think it has to do with percentages more than any real “limits” on any game. As you say, there’s even that “Transcendental” D&D game once in a while. I think I even recall that myself… from long ago… maybe. 🙂


  9. “a construct a lot harder than reality” — that’s a fair assessment, Mike, and I’d definitely agree; what we’re tossing around here is the big squishy theory, with nice clean lines of demarcation and none of that pesky reality to mess things up.

    I think there’s a kind of excel chart you could do to track diminishing returns to effort-input with some games, but that’s about as far as I’d go whole thing — the final upshot is that there are some games where you can coast and get away with it, and some where you just can’t.

    Next up… pinpointing those games that don’t (usually) need a constant, high amount of GM-supplied energy to keep rolling… games where a little bit of GM input goes a long way.

    PTA is not such a game. In terms of prep required, DnD isn’t either.

    Sorcerer is such a game, in my experience; “Prep Bangs and go” can result in some pretty great game session (assuming only that you ‘get’ bangs). By that same token, any game that plays well using the ‘prep bangs and go’ method falls into this category — in my personal experience, that would also include Heroquest (1e – dunno about 2e), Nobilis, The Mountain Witch (intermixing bangs with The Mountain Witch Trick), and a couple trad games that can be drifted that direction.

Comments are closed.