Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Fat Game

So there are Skinny Games and Fat Games.

This is different than rules-heavy rules-lite, but related. It's more like: how big is the library of useful-but-not-integral pieces with distinct mechanical meaning that are part of the game?

A really Skinny Game is rules-lite but, also, does not have a lot of moving parts. The classic example of a "moving part" here would be like a pre-written magic spell like Sleep. The Pool is a really Skinny Game. This superhero game is a Skinny Game. STACK is a Skinny Game.

A Fat Game would be like pretty much every edition of D&D. It has a library of spells that are all different, plus weapons, each with different damage (usually). The classes and races, each with mechanical differences, all fatten it up. Treasures and monsters fatten it up, but not quite as much because you don't have to use them and they aren't automatically part of the game. Plus every house rule and new bit on a blog.

Even though Call of Cthulhu is full of spells and monsters, I tend to think of it as relatively Skinny system since I never use any of the library stuff (except the guns) or maybe use one per game and they feel very much as if they're just there to make the book longer. Does Nyarlathotep need stats, really? Does explaining what "History" skill does genuinely count as content in Cthulhu?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess' lack of a monster list was much lamented, on account of--I think--less that people didn't want to make up their own or just use D&D ones but more that they expected any D&D derivative to have a certain amount of Fatness.

Rolemaster is Fat and crunchy--generally Fat Games are more crunchy than skinny ones but they can be relatively rules-lite like Marvel Super Heroes: it has loads of powers and skills in its library. If you are playing using the actual Marvel Universe as a setting, then the game is really Fat since the stats for all the heroes and villains are included in the game.

I tend to think of RIFTS as being so Fat it's almost Skinny--like, at a certain point you just go "Ok, you can do anything with this game, stop looking at the rules and just make shit up".

Indie games tend to be Skinny--inventing powers and abilities and details is usually part of the creative process that drives those games in play so there isn't a widget library to Fatten them.

EDIT--Important distinction: systems like Mutants and Masterminds and HERO where you build-your-own effects. I don't consider those effects as Fat as they'd be if they just gave you the thing fully formed. Not to say they are bad, simply that Fat is about straight-out-of-the-box library content, not tools to build content. Giving someone a novel is different than giving them the dictionary and going "You can build any sentence you want with this!"

A good Skinny game is elegant and makes you think about good game design. A good Fat Game is rich and inspiring.

A game like Vampire with tons of background that isn't tied mechanically to the gameplay could be thought of as either Skinny or Fat depending on whether you want to use that stuff, I guess.

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Here's what I want somebody to write: A Fat fucking Game. A seriously cool new Fat Game full of big fat wonder. Fat as an obscenely baroque high art the way 1e Warhammer and Rolemaster did it. I want to see someone put in 99% perspiration.

Sleek little 3-paragraph flexible minigames--we have people on that. Every week there's a new one. Clever mechanics are getting produced and I trust they will continue to do so as the people who like to do that show no sign of getting bored with it and that important job is being done.

But right now what is going to get me excited is, I think, the Fatter the better. Getting pointed toward a genre and playstyle by a few good illustrations and an Appendix N is all fine and good but I can do that myself pretty much at will these days. I want to see something where nobody at the table knows what the fuck is going on and then you turn to page 546 and....whoa, I never knew that thing did that!

I don't need more crunch, but I want a million billion culled and polished ideas shoved into the fiber of the thing--when I invite the game over to play, I want it to be a multilayered and unpredictable player. I can and do invent stuff all the time, but I like a game that brings a lot of canned creativity to the table. It's fun to collaborate.

I'm supposed to be getting DCC in the mail soon--I hope it's Fat. I hope that the new D&D is Fat with stuff that counts as Fat because it wasn't anywhere in the earlier editions. But I hope no matter how Fat they are, some maniac is off somewhere at this very moment working on something even Fatter.

28 comments:

  1. I think of Burning Wheel as Fat. The core is really simple and lite: grab a number of d6 equal to your skill and roll, 4 and higher counts as success. That there is more or less the whole of the game mechanics (excluding a few twists). The base game is about 40 pages or so.

    But then you have huge lists of skills and traits and spells. You have charts upon charts for lifepath character generation. You have subsystems for resources, social arguments, shooting at range, fighting up close, improving skills...rules for how armour works, special rules for wounds and healing. It's fat as hell. All that clocks up to hundreds and hundreds of pages if you add up the supplemental books with alternate magic systems and so on.

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  2. I was going to recommend DCC until you mentioned it. I don't think you'll be disappointed. It's PHAT.

    Each spell has a list of around ten possible effects, 8 horrible mutations you could gain by failing it, 4 misfire effects, and 6 flavour effects ( Like (1)an egg shimmers into existence, then hatches into the animal summoned). When you learn a spell you roll on a table to get a unique effect that happens when you cast it, so every wizards magic missile will be weird in a different way.

    Then there's rules for sacrificing your life-force to make your magic better, and bargaining with demons for power. And it has like 6 different demon patrons, and each of those has a specific patron taint you can be afflicted with and 3 spells they can teach you and different sacrifices they may demand from you, and a list of effects that may happen if you try to summon them directly.

    And rules for wizard duels.

    The only problem for a fat connoisseur is that all the fat has been put into wizards. Thieves and warriors and stuff just have a whole lot of potential hooks that go "Hey, see what we did for wizards? Use that as an example and put your own fat in here."

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    1. Excellent summation of DCC. I'm actually ok with the fattiness of Warriors. They have mighty deeds with several example tables, plus the best critical tables (my favorite kind of "fat"). It's really the cleric that gets the shaft. Even though they get spells with their own tables and disapproval, they still seem rather skinny when compared to the wizard. Why not mercurial magic and taint for clerics?

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  3. Is it possible to have it the other way around? To have a complicated system but relatively little differentiated content?

    The Riddle of Steel comes to mind, but nothing else.

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    1. Marvel Heroic feels a lot like that to me

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    2. It's been a long time since I read it, but HERO 5E seems like it fits this. Making characters was an incredibly complicated process, but the game was meant to be generic ala GURPS. Also, maybe GURPS counts? The core rules are a whole book sans-setting.

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  4. And here I thought you wouldn't like my forthcoming Alchemy! Clearly I should not have worried.

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  5. What I like are games that are...big eaters with a high metabolism? Crap, I don't want to abuse this metaphor. I don't mind "fat" when we're not at the table playing, or fat that goes into the logic of it, but when I sit down for an actual session, I want it to play skinny. I LIKE crunch when I am building or leveling up my character, but I want all the moving pieces to slide together seamlessly during play.

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  6. Roger: FATE is the closest thing I can think of, especially if you use the Dresden Files magic system which is skinny as all hell but pretty crunchy.

    I think that a lot can be said for rules like but fat. The important bit to make that work is to keep all of the bits of grease from interacting with each other too much.

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  7. Are you familiar with 3rd edition WFRP? It's a moderately skinny game with enormous amounts of fat heaped on top in the form of cards. You've got cards for careers (and every new expansion has more of them), you've got cards the special ability that goes with each career, you've got cards for talents, and of course you've got cards for actions, including combat maneuvers and spells. You've got cards for critical injuries, cards for spell misfires, cards for conditions, cards for diseases, and cards for mutations. There are cards for monsters, with an image of the monster on one side and the stats on the other. They've got cards for what kind of group your party really is (Brash Young Fools, Swords For Hire, etc), they've got cards for the secret societies you're facing, including their evil schemes and how those are progressing. Oh, an of course there are cards for magic items and for locations (rooftop, forest glade, secret temple) with special effects for each location.

    I'm sure I'm forgetting some. It's enough to make you wonder why they have no cards for regular weapons and equipment. Maybe they have those now.

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    1. Doesn't it also have weird special dice too?

      yeah, there is a reason people do not mention it much. ;)

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  8. Urutsk is the phatest of the fat:

    http://thegrandtapestry.blogspot.com

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  9. I think the game you described is The Burning Wheel.

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  10. Sounds like you are describing the Gigacrawler project.

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  11. I wonder if the recent draft of D&D Next has content that is actually Fat, but isn't treated as such because people feel like they already know it.

    Like on some level people are thinking "of course there are Fighters, Clerics and Thieves, I already knew there was going to be" - so the description of classes feels like it's emptier than it really is.

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    1. Well to me it is going to be Fat if there are ways of expressing what fighters clerics and thieves do which are all new--especially if they are all new but can be used in older editions--that would increase their "library" status

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  12. If you truly want a FAT game system, look at the Hero System. It will give you so much crunch you'll break your teeth on it, and yet it is so full of awesome creativeness that it will feel skinny. You can quite literally do anything with it. It isn't restrained to a specific genre or setting, and is actually just a Tool Kit for building the game you want to play. GURPS is also in this same vein, but it isn't truly as generic as Hero is because it has predefined powers and such. Hero simply gives you a Blast. Then you define what that blast is. It could be a beam of light, a ball of fire, or even a might hammer of the gods. Everything in it works this way. You work backward from the effect that you want to have as opposed to the way most games work--it is fire so it does this.

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    1. Important distinction: systems like Mutants and Masterminds and HERO where you build-your-own effects. I don't consider those effects as Fat as they'd be if they just gave you the thing fully formed.

      Not to say they are bad, simply that Fat is about straight-out-of-the-box library content, not tools to build content.

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    1. Nope. Not enough density of actual usable stuff.

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  14. I like this idea. Like what I always wanted Ars Magica to be (but somehow failed to be). Close for me right now is Stars Without Number. Low on crunch, high on interesting.

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  15. I don't want to have to eat all that fat before I sit down to play, though - that's always my concern with stuff like Tekumel or Talislanta or Harn, how much do I need to absorb ahead of time not to decapitate myself because I misunderstood how shaving works or didn't get to page 800 where it's all laid out? Libraries/dictionaries are for consulting not reading in entirety. How do you handle that in fat games?

    So maybe M:tg? or the Mythos card game? I love how your psionics system emerges through play out of experience at the table - that's my favourite kind of nutrient, whether it's fat or skinny.

    In that spirit

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    1. Oh I agree--to me the best Fat is a surprise you find like months into the game. Like: Oh, look at that. I think if you have to know it ahead of time it's crunch--or more like crunch.

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  16. doh. pls ignore "in that spirit" at end of previous comment.

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  17. How about HackMaster? If you include the Hacklopedias there is 1600 monsters worth of Fat.

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  18. Personally I stop 'counting' monsters once I feel like I understand the process behind their creation.

    For example an owlbear 'counts'. But then if there are five other monsters that are one animal's head on another animal's body, I'd tend to think "OK, I get it - you can put one animal's head on another's body". After that, further examples seem pointless to me.

    That's why I don't usually like monster collections, except for entries that have something unique about them (like the Man of Wounds in Varlets and Vermin).

    Most games seem to have 'Monster Manuals'. A few don't have any and tell you to make up your own. I'd prefer to have an approach that gave you some real animals, and then some ways you can combine them to make monsters.

    For example "a skeletal version of a creature is undead, takes 1/2 damage from piercing or bladed weapons, and is fearless" rather than having separate entries for (human) Skeletons, Skeletal Horses, Skeletal Hounds and so on.

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    1. I somewhat agree. A skeletal horse only counts if the thing tells me something about them i didn't already know

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  19. A game like Vampire with tons of background that isn't tied mechanically to the gameplay could be thought of as either Skinny or Fat depending on whether you want to use that stuff, I guess

    The new one has a lot less of that I think. Actually the whole "new world of darkness" move seems to have been designed with this distinction in mind, simplifying the basic ruleset, then making sure when they publish a new book that it includes stuff with new repurposeable mechanics, or new sub-systems, even in things like the city books.

    Thinking about it, the treatment of epic levels makes an interesting contrast to D&D. D&D starts with super-characters entering a new game with followers and castles and gods and stuff, then gradually with each edition this gets reduced to "add more numbers to things" until you get to 4 where it's actively designed to avoid changing the game too much.

    WoD starts with "dots above 5 = godmode", then in the new game they give each species a bunch of different magic systems and organisation types that come into play at different levels and change how the game is played.

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