Saturday, June 2, 2012

Where The Toys Are

Ran a game yesterday and listened to some people talking about a game on a podcast yesterday.

Regarding the game:

Poison needle trap.

PC dodged it.

Needles fly into the wall.

Mandy: "Heyyyyy, can we collect the poison needles and use them later?"

Me: "Sure."

Izzy goes to collect them, I have her make a thiefy roll to see how many she safely extracts.

According to rulings-not-rules common law, the PCs now have poison needles they can use.

Yay, new toy.


Then I listened to the podcast.

It was about playing a 4e game and the players were pulling apart the game's mechanics. Mostly talking about their classes. I like the paladin because this I don't like the druid because that.

And there was a lot of the sort of "fighters get less toys to play with" thing.

Toys meaning abilities in this case.

The emphasis (in classic Marvelly be awesome v see awesome style) was on what they were and what they could do with it, not on atmosphere.


It will not have escaped your notice that most Old School blog gameable content is about what you can stick into your game for the PCs to play with while a great deal of Newie on-line attention is played to intense debate and analysis of the quality of various classes.

People expect toys. Note a toy is not necessarily a prize--it is not a static statement of achievement, it is something you can do something with. You can use it to interact with the gameworld.

I think players in my game expect more that the world will be toyful (which is why a doorkicking hedonist like Connie doesn't get bored with her pretty ninja-power-free rogue). Players in other kinds of games might expect that if their PCs themselves are not toyful, they are not going to get any toys and the game becomes a slog through numbers and known quantities.

Everybody wants toys in one way or another. This is, after all, play. This is good.

Toys the players can control provide richness and unpredictability.

There is a difference between different kinds of games in where the toys are. When you get them. What you have to do to get them.

In the game I ran (an old-style game) the toys were mostly the environment. Specifically: They were things in the environment, mostly put there by me, the GM, or (important) implied by the fact that this was a fake Medieval world and therefore full of whatever a world like that would need to keep chugging along. "If this is a port is there a beach? If there's a beach I am going to grab some sand. If there's sand I'm going to throw it in the giant's face."

In the newer style game, the toys are often PC abilities themselves. They are hardwired into a PC and these toys were put there by the original game designer.


So, here's a way you can describe games: "PC-integrated toys", "environmental toys", "publisher-provided toys", "GM-provided toys", "module-provided toys", "multivalent toys" (these are toys which can hurt or help--like a door that shrinks whatever you put through it--an environmental multivalent toy--or a spell mechanic where you risk sanity to cast a spell--a PC-integrated multivalent toy).

Which toys are interacting? Which kinds of toys are mostly interacting in a game? What do you have to do to get toys? Are toys reusable? For how long? How many ways can a given toy be re-used before monotony sets in? How many kinds of interactions is a toy capable of?

It's sort of a question of "where is the game?" (since games take place over a limited space of time, like songs, if you want any kind of thing you need to decide which instruments will interact when). Which interactions will characterize the game?

( I have always enjoyed that thing when a toy picked up accidentally in the 2nd act turns out to kill the baddie in the 9th act.)
Obviously you can have both. If you were going to comment that don't even--it's far too obvious to bring up as if it's some clever enlightened thing you thought up in your infinite wiseness. Yes, you can have both.

There's a scale in genres--Alice in Wonderland would be on one side (she is an ordinary girl but her environment is rich with toys) and many adventures of Iron Man are on the other (he's in an unexotic New York environment but his armor and all the things it does makes his adventures rich with detail. Did you see the one where he fought the Grey Gargoyle?).

So, yeah, there's that. Where will my toys come from?


  1. Here's an odd question: does the GM have to hand players an itemized inventory of toys, or can he hand them a toy box that he promises will have toys in it when the time comes?

    Seriously. I'm losing my tolerance for complexity, but some players complain if they can't customize or differentiate their character with long lists of special abilities. I'd rather improvise abilities based on how the player described his character and what he's trying to do. Players can either point to their Sly Flourish card or tell me what flourish their characters added; I'd rather give a bonus for the story than the card.

    1. Depends ont he players and their relationship with the GM i suppose.

      The Vornheim prophecy mechanic was like "here's a toy, if the player doesn't use it, the GM gets to" so it was a kind of contract. I think if the usual gaming suspects don't work for you it might be interesting to investigate that kind of contractual mechanic

  2. This reminds me of a conversation I once had about sandbox campaigns. My friend, who has often been frustrated by the lack of direction from me the GM in my games, said, "a sandbox with out some toys is just a box of sand."

    We were using your broad definition of toys, which is the only reason I bring it up."

    Though reading and commenting here it occurs to me that in addition to toys, my games need a target or two - some options for the players to pick up on and use as goals to reach for the end game. Or, if I am really lucky, not at all.

  3. I have to admit to thinking about this a lot, as this seems to be the prime reason for the reluctance from some of my gamer buddies to play in my original edition sandbox. They want 'toys' in order to feel like they have some control, and seem to feel they will be powerless puppets without them.

    I have tried to explain that the resources they find in the sandbox and acquire are theirs, but it's a no-go for some of them. Just look at the responses to my blog for some of this.

    It does get down to issues of trust. I feel a little helpless, because even though they seem to enjoy when I GM, they are reluctant to trust playing with me without standardized rules or the Ultimate Complete Handbook of Feats, Spells, and Magical Dohickies. Blargh.

  4. (Since I play Fate but follow a lot of OSR discussions, I'm the guy always bringing up Fate games out of context. I'm ok with this.)

    Anyway, this post illuminates one of the ways Fate has been fun for my group, which I didn't quite grok: the toys. Since Fate is all about adding or inflicting aspects on people (like, "everybody knows he's a tool" or "jaw wired shut"), they collect on the table. And my players have been going to town with them in ways I did not see coming.

    Heck, they've started to treat NPCs as toys. The "I'll convince him I am honest, turn him against my father, then frame him for my father's death" sort of toys. It's like everybody is a poison needle.

    So, thanks for that insight. Not everything about Fate has been a perfect fit, but this helps me put my finger on what is.

  5. "Toyful world" is one of those ways of putting things that takes a question I've been thinking about as a GM and puts it in a phrase that encapsulates it really well. In a word, then, thanks!

  6. I'm always a little suprised/disappointed about how many gamers seem to need to have a toy placed into their hands and instructed in its use, rather than pick up that toy and experiment to see what else it can do that's not in the instructions. Tends to reflect personality types of the players rather than anything system related IME