Friday, January 15, 2010

How Much Do You Want To Be A Wizard?

Once in a while I look over at the Forge and I see a game like Shock or The Pool and I think--"That sounds fun, I'd play that."

And I don't.

The reason is because there's nobody to play with.

What do you mean, Zak? You've got players, right?

Ok, but they're a different kind of player than the players you'd need to play most of the more interesting indie games I've seen.

Here is what Mandy playing The Pool would be like:

Me: "Ok, now you have to describe your character in 50 words. Anything you want."

Mandy: "Fuck this."

Somehow this request creates a social or mental situation in people that "pick a race, pick a class" doesn't. To some people these 50 words sound like freedom, to some people, it sounds like work.

One indie-narrativist game battlecry is "Story now!" It seems like a fairly decent description of how their games work: in the most interesting and original indie games I've seen*, the players are all put on the spot at one point or another to come up with some interesting and creative story elements.

Here's the hitch--in order to play you either have to have faith in your on-the-spot creativity or be unselfconscious enough not to give a fuck.

And, if the latter, you have to have faith that even though you don't give a fuck, this game is still going to be fun and worth doing.

In other words, it's not true in RPGs that "the only limits are your imagination". A huge limit is the amount of energy you've got that day and your faith in the notion that sitting around using your imagination (and very little else) is going to be a fun way to spend the next 2-4 hours.

In the gaming community, I would guess that 90% of people who have that particular kind of faith in their own on-the-spot creativity or who are unselfconscious and faithful enough not to worry or who are always sure their imagination is more fun than their xbox are GMs or prime GM-material.

Basically, these are the people who run the games, own the books, and write the blogs. These are the people who like to think about the game when they aren't playing the game and who know who Kevin Siembieda and Ookla the Mok are.

And, if you haven't noticed by now, this blog is largely about how you can play and have lots of fun with only one or two of those people at the table and have the rest of the people just be players.

At least, you can play D&D that way.

Essentially, in order for a game to work, I think there has to be a certain critical mass of creativity at the table. The available sources are: the players, the GM, and the game itself.

In a video game, the creativity is supplied largely by the game. Your input is optional--Mario will grow when he eats a mushroom whether you provide an explanation or not. In, say, The Pool, none of the creativity is supplied by the game (obviously, it took creativity to design the mechanics, but what I mean here is, it doesn't readily suggest a scenario for play), it's all on the players. In a D&D scenario, the creativity is shared between the GM and Gary (or whoever else wrote setting elements the GM is using in the game) and the players can, in a well-run game, pretty much provide as much or as little as they want.

If we imagine this continuum, with Super Mario Brothers on one side and improv theatre on the other, you can see most indie games as an attempt to raise the creativity ante for players and lower the creativity ante of the game publisher--moving toward the improv side. On this scale, all D&D would be in the middle (as well as most other similar games--Palladium, Games Workshop, White Wolf, etc.), with old school D&D being closer to the indie games and more branded and defined versions of the game being a little more toward the Mario side.

My point here is not that one side or the other is good or bad--after all, there's a name for what happens when all the creativity is supplied for you and you find it engaging--it's called "great art". My point is that the Mario side is a good place for players who aren't yet sure that the game they're playing will automatically be fun.


What's it like in the middle?

I think of D&D working kind of like a dinner conversation.

Imagine a table at a wedding:

There's a conversation going on. Everyone can hear it but not everybody has to talk. There's rarely an embarrassing silence, though, because there's at least one person there who just really wants to get to the heart of the matter of whatever this conversation is about and so will start talking if there's a lull.

Once in a while, no matter who you are, you will be called upon to perform simple, well-defined tasks. "Can you pass the peas?""Are you going to hit the rust monster or do something else?" This is easy for pretty much anybody and doesn't put you on the spot.

Nothing necessarily stops you from doing something mechanically novel like, say, putting olives on your pancakes, but the conversation and the meal will keep on even if you don't.

Nothing stops you from interjecting with your own ideas "Well I think Sigmund Freud was full of shit!""I think we should tie the displacer beast up before we try to sell it to the mountain gnome," and thus taking the conversation in a whole new direction, but the conversation will keep going if you don't.

This is normal, this is what all kinds of people do every day. They are shy and insecure or apathetic about the subject or the company they're in and when they become comfortable or the conversation moves to a place they have ideas about, then they talk.

In D&D, as a player, you can (often, not always) choose to grapple hard with the scenario ("I look in the desk,""I write 'xvarts suck' on the wall with a rock", "I mix the growth and shrinking potions together to see what happens") or you can sit back and roll dice when it's necessary and just regard what the DM and the more aggressive players are doing as entertainment, like a movie where you have a choice.

In other words, D&D supports several playing styles simultaneously (assuming the DM's any good). In a good game, everybody's playing the game they want to play, even if it's eight different games.

Right here, I should say something: the 'passive player' is rarely forever passive.

You can't just go "passive players suck" because what happens is the table is an evershifting patchwork of active gaming, passive gaming, metagaming, snack-eating, etc. Most people move easily from one mode to the next and do it all the time--players have moods, and the mode fits their mood, and I can tell you that, at least in my game, the mood of a Los Angeles porn star can change faster than any observed phenomenon yet discovered. The only person who has to be steady-state is the GM.

Also, as I am discovering, players don't really need to know the rules. I mean, they can, that's fine and good, but the penalty for not knowing--at least in the beginning--isn't that big. A D&D game that's basically "Tell me what you want to do, I'll tell you what you need to roll to do it" will work perfectly well for a player's first session or two--long enough for them to learn the basics. The game can grow as their knowledge, confidence, and faith that the game will actually be fun grow.

A lot of the innovative new games, however, seem to require that everybody know the rules and/or that everybody be inventive (or at least confident and energetic) at regular intervals.

In a broad sense this is just the price of democracy--with the power to control the world, comes the responsibility to help keep it interesting. On the other hand, I think it'd be a nice challenge to create an newbie-friendly game that still offers the player a lot of narrative control if they want it, yet doesn't make the wallflower player feel like a useless spectator if they don't seize the bit immediately. Probably it's already out there.

The concept I'm getting at is, I guess: Buy-in.

"Buy-in" is, basically, the feeling that a thing will be worth the amount of effort asked.

It's not just "Do you want to play a game where you're a wizard" but "Do you want to play a game where you're a wizard for x amount of effort?".

The GMs of this world are the ones who say "I want to play a game where I'm a wizard for almost any amount of effort" the player-only people have their limits. I see those limits when I introduce new players to the game "Will I have to....?""What if I...?""I'm gonna suck, you'll see!"

For many people, it's embarassing to be seen putting out mental effort and failing. "Ha ha, noob!" And so, to new players, RPGs are scary. You can practice a video game in the comfort and solitude of your own home and then play with others once you're good at it. With RPGs you can't. The fear many people feel (or just the distaste or disinterest which masks fear) is really akin to the fear people feel about public speaking or having a story or drawing they've made critiqued in a classroom. One of the big things I have to do as a GM with new players is say "Don't worry, you can't really do it wrong."

In D&D, the DM has to be on--s/he has to be up and awake and paying attention and also has to be enough into the game of D&D that s/he has a scenario ready to roll and roll smoothly. But nobody else does. They can show up diffident and hungover and largely unconcerned with the genre of fantasy literature and the direction of the campaign and still have a blast.

In the indie games I've seen, this appears to not be so. You need a handful of GM-types at the table or else the game won't do what it's supposed to do. I am cool with this. You need a handful of good musicians to make great music and we all need great music.

However, I think that people working on designing games should be aware that despite the fact that it's derived from wargames and stories about white men in Medieval Europe, the world's oldest RPG is actually astoundingly comfortable for newbies to get into because it is so flexible in the demands it makes on them.

Addendum: Road test of this theory...

*Note this phrase "the most interesting and original indie games I've seen". Mountain Witch and Dogs in the Vineyard do not fit into this category. Not by a long shot. This post is not about all indie games or all story games, it's only about the ones I find interesting. (note added after this happened.)


Zak Sabbath said...

I'm reposting these 2 comments 'cause they accidentally got erased

Bill said:

I think you're very right about this especially calling out the different types of level of effort. Hypothetically the games labeled 'Rules Lite' should be easily accessible by new players but more often than not, it is a case of shifting the paradigm from numbers to letters rather than actually lowering the level of effort.

Kelvingreen said:

"Don't worry, you can't really do it wrong."

Of all the excellent ideas and GM advice you've posted here over the months, this is the best. Great post.

Ragnorakk said...

Yeah - really good.
"In a broad sense this is just the price of democracy--with the power to control the world, comes the responsibility to help keep it interesting"
I feel like this statement is very broadly applicable.

Anonymous said...

This hits so many nails on so many heads that I'm a little in awe.

You've also managed to define why nobody I game with would like a FORGE-styled game, even tho most of them are well versed in traditional imporvisation, too. The bottom line is we're older people who don't liek to work that hard for our relaxation when we're not at work -- D&D expects a lot less of us, and Old School D&D lets us do what we like.

E.G.Palmer said...

Zak, you cover so much ground in your posts, I forget what I was going to comment on by the time I get to the end!

It has been my experience as well that any group of players has varying degrees of engagement, and at different times during a game. It depends on what about the game really rings that player's bell. And what their general play style is.
There usually is one player who drives the game, making the big decisions and taking action when the others hesitate or don't care.
That leadership position does get passed around, or wrestled over depending on circumstances.
I like to provide motivations that may put players at odds, as long as they are capable of keeping the conflict in-game.

Anonymous said...

I think it's even more obvious with boardgames. Monopoly is always going to be more broadly popular than Advanced Squad Leader. It's just less work.

Adam Thornton said...

Holy shit, you just managed to articulate why all our forays into narrativist games (with the sole exception of Kill Puppies For Satan, and we were all really drunk) have fallen apart. You are my hero.


SC78 said...

Great post and way to work the Thundarr the Barbarian reference. I had to look to see how long ago that was (1983) and am now feeling old. As others have already stated, this makes me realize why some games that lean heavily on player creativity never really took off with the groups I ran with (White Wolf in particular). From a GM perspective it sounds like it would be great fun but not all players are willing to put in the effort needed for that type/style of play.

Trey said...

Great post. A good summation of the issue.

I do think that some of that creativity is like a muscle that can be exercised over time. I've found novice players unable/unwilling/too embarassed to do a lot of that sort of "work", but as the game goes on they develop more confidence/interest in that area.

Urban said...

Beautiful insights and revelations... well written!

Adam Dickstein said...

As always, an amazing analysis of not only the nature of RPGs and their players but also the why and how of what we do. Potentially in there is more insights into how to get new, non-gamers into the hobby. I said it before and I'll say it again, there is a book deal in that idea. :)

Its also interesting for me to note that once again I'm happy to be have been lucky enough to have played with the type of players who are willing to put in the effort to try something different. For the vast majority of my time in the hobby, my group and I loved playing RPGs so much we would put in the proverbial 110%. We tried everything from Toon to Rolemaster, Star Trek to Advanced Recon and now know what we like and what we don't.

True, I know just how much I want to be (or don't want to be) a wizard but I'm glad I got the chance to find out how fun it can be to be other things as well.

Brennen Reece said...

Hey Zak, I play a lot of those Forge/SG indie-narrative-hippy games online using Skype and various virtual game tables (like MapTool and Vassal). I'd love to have you aboard sometime. Let me know.

Zak Sabbath said...

I appreciate the offer but at the moment real life is keeping me fairly busy.

Caleb The Heretic said...

Good post, IMAO interesting view.

SirAllen said...

I think your 'table at a wedding' analogy is excellent. Because as DMs we are (or at least I am) trying to make sure that everyone is having fun. And I don't think that I need to...

We have a new guy in the group that is quiet. I keep wondering if he is having fun, and trying to get him involved. But I shouldn't - my key is that he shows up every week, and I should let him play his own way.

Your blog explores these new player/enthusiastic DM dynamics very well Zak.

Victor Raymond said...

Zak - dead on. Especially the fear of looking bad. You've neatly put your finger on what I sometimes liked about Forge-related games (i.e. I got inspired) and sometimes disliked (i.e. they seemed like a lot of work). Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

(I really don't have anything novel to say... oh the irony.)

Angry Wombat said...

That was a bloody good read - and explains very well why many of my players are so resistant to trying any other games, even though the game they play now is really complicated by comparison.

They _KNOW_ the rules already. Learning new ones takes effort that may/may not be worth it... awesome post.

d7 said...

Wonderfully insightful, and timely for me too.

I've been turning over in my head how to get a game that is midway between the indie and D&D styles of play—Burning Wheel—started with a group that is mostly low buy-in. I've been subconsciously making the same conclusions, so having it articulated here—and so much more besides—is really awesome.

Understanding where the quiet players are coming from will serve me well once I get this game going too, so thanks for that. I tend to push a bit too hard for "creative now!" when I'm GMing a game like that, so consciously avoiding that will be much easier know that they're still having fun while being quiet. And, this confirms that my plan of very slowly adding rules complexity as the players show signs of wanting it rather than pushing to ramp it up is a good idea.

Alex said...

This is an amazing post in a great blog!

My deal-breaker with D&D 3rd Edition was that I started to feel like the system made it harder for players to really step on up and engage (at least in the particular way that I like). I tried other stuff and eventually ended up with indie/Forgey/story games.

The Pool and Shock both strike me as the extreme end as far as Forge games go. Even setting up the game requires a rather massive amount of input from everyone involved. I'm a very "GM-y" player, but I balk at those, too.

3:16 is more to my taste. It's D&D-like in a lot of ways. The game presents clear missions to accomplish and you can move the game forward by making some combat rolls, or you can totally burst in and start adding all kinds of stuff freeform-style; most of the game's (light) tactical complexity only shows up when you start competing for kills with the other players. It's a lot like *old* D&D specifically in the way you can put together characters in ten minutes and replace them easily when they die.

The big "Forgey" element in 3:16 is that always following where the combat rolls take you leaves you stuck in a Catch-22 nightmare of endless, pointless war. In the long term, you need to find that right moment to punch the plot in your face and make your own.

That's a combination of Forgey and, erm, let's call it low-pressure that has worked for me so far.

-- Alex

Unknown said...

Excellent article. I agree that some of the older systems were easier to buy into than a lot of newer systems I have tried. The group I play with is mostly playing a (modified) version of D&D 4th Edition, and the modifications seem to have made it playable and enjoyable, but as written its too much like an MMORPG on paper for my tastes.
I am one of those people who only perks up every once in a while. I don't have much desire to buy into most systems I have to admit, but its for a different set of reasons: I like to understand the mechanics of a game to really feel part of it, but I don't like any of the rules sets I have played in the past few years enough to feel like shelling out a couple of hundred bucks to buy the books required.
I think the publishers greed over selling expansion books to rulesets (WOTC is very guilty of this, something I thought we might avoid when they took over TSR. White Wolf seems the Grand Masters of it mind you) is what has kept me out of really adopting any one system, and as a result I generally know only the bare minimum of whats required to play. It means every new game is a learning curve for me, because I am not going to shell out another $40-$60 to buy the rules myself, and someone else owns them. Others in my group are willing to do so, so frequently its 2 or 3 of us that have the rules, but never me. Call me lazy, call me jaded, I dunno, but it never seems like its worthwhile to purchase a set of rules books when I am not sure I will be playing the game 6 months from now.
If the complete rules were published in one book, in a light and easily mastered manner, and the rest was left up to the players and GM, I think a new rules set would be much more approachable overall.

GrimJesta said...

This might be the best blog post I've ever read. Here or anywhere. It's almost like you killed the Old School RPG vs. New School RPG vs. Forgie RPG debate not with blood or ripping dialogue, but with a blunt and a wink. Sorta like saying, "Hey man, it's all cool. You can't do it wrong."



alysdexia said...

"Anything you want." Are there no rules or forbiddens?

a GM -> one
the GM -> who

d7 said...

"Are there no rules or forbiddens?"

@alysdexia: You can find out by reading the game. It's less than 2000 words. The short answer is "no, not the sort of rules you're thinking of."

Orklord said...

Hey Zak, this post spurned some discussion amongst my RPG podcasting peers. We recorded an episode all about this blog post. I'd love it if you could give a listen when you have a chance.

Canon Puncture Show

Zak Sabbath said...

hey, thanks, interesting...

it's not that we don't want to be creative, it's that we're moody--that's the point.

Michael Prescott said...

I completely agree. I noticed that Burning Wheel works best with players who themselves are comfortable GMing. There are some people who just aren't comfortable making stuff up on the spot - whether they haven't got much of a repertoire (of history, stories, whatever) to draw on, or there are other inhibitions at work (fear of embarassment or exposure).

Another factor is how many other games the player is involved in. You can bring a lot of energy to your one game, but if you're in three parallel games, that takes a lot out of you.

Having said that, I find I really enjoy what you get when you've got all that creativity at your fingertips. My strongest memories of D&D was comedy at the table or the occasional painful loss of a character (e.g. our TPK at the hands of a mind flayer).

My strongest memories of Burning Wheel are the moments of intense, character-defining drama (e.g. Aelfred sealing the dying priestess in her tomb and taking up her mantle; Orestes' religious conversion after being healed of a mortal wound; Halden Benir trying to shame his adulterous wife into suicide.)

Zak Sabbath said...

Yeah, the irony content around here is way too high for a steady diet of character-defining drama. A little bit, mixed in with a metric ton of comedy and death seems to be the best way to go for us.

Joe McDonald said...

Hey Zak,

As someone who loves those "Forge-style games", I think you really did a tremendous job of exploring the differences between them and D&D.

It's really even-handed. I feel respected in my desire to be way down the end of the spectrum (heavily-player-generated, heavily-thematic play), and I totally get and appreciate where you want to be.

Interestingly, I think that it's easier to "convert" a non-gamer to indie games than it is to convert a traditional gamer. Why is that? First, I think it's because those non-gamers don't have the connotations and context that, say, you would. And so when you ask them to do "GM stuff", they won't have any clue that it's "GM stuff", or what a GM is, or that there are groups with less creative responsibility out there. Often, newcomers will even step above their creative responsibility, deciding its a good idea to start introducing new NPCs, etc.

So, while I agree with everything in your post, I wanted to throw that dimension into the conversation. What constitutes "work" is culturally defined, to a degree.

As another example, I bet logging XP after a fight doesn't seem like a lot of work to you. To others, that's an inordinate amount of bookkeeping to do during their free time. (And look at Burning Wheel, where you have to log every single test you take! They'd balk for sure.)

Zak Sabbath said...


Abstractions like "a gamer" and "a non-gamer" are useless here.

I am thinking of specific actual people, many of whom were non-gamers just scant months ago.

What makes them like DIY D&D and what makes them, in some cases, not suitable for certain other games right at this moment isn't expectations about gaming, it's their actual individual personalities.

Come to think of it, I talk about that a lot in the post.

Tim White said...

Damn right. The problem with D&D for experienced players is that it's not super-good at any one thing...which is what makes it awesome for a mixed group of people, which is what most of us will have over time...

Unknown said...


Your description of The Pool as only suitable for high-player-authorship play is inaccurate.

There's nothing preventing a Pool player from shifting gears (mid-game or for an entire game) into a very passive mode and letting the GM invent all the adversity and roll-results.

I've run quick Pool scenarios with plots like "The Lost Puppy Tries To Find His Way Home"-- for players who were too-timid (or just couldn't be bothered) to make-up a bunch of shxt all the time.

Here's a pre-gen character to spare Mandy any headache:

Jumping +1
Eat Mushroom to Grow +1
Plumber +1

Zak Sabbath said...


I see your point and appreciate you digging up this dead post just to say that, but, for me, to play a pre-gen would be largely to remove the very thing that I think is interesting about the Pool from the game.

Not that it couldn;t be fun under some circumstances--merely that the hook ,for me, would be the weird events that Pool-style character gen could kick off.

Anonymous said...

Great essay!
So the Scylla and Charybdis of never-player-RPG-before fear are fear-of-boring/complex-rules and fear-of-being-put-on-the spot.
I think something good will come out of this insight, something that carries with it the best of “Story now”–type games and D&D.
Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Ah, not to knock D&D-style gaming. If this “best of” thinking ends up being 100% like D&D and 0% like the indie games, that will be fine.

Patrick Mallah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GH said...

Interesting analysis.

I think (A)D&D is often more like being down the pub with your mates than at a wedding. A wedding is a 'one shot' adventure with many strangers, the pub is more like a adventure campaign with mates. But otherwise great analogy.

I've never done 'story telling' games, except during drama class a school. I've watched a YouTube video (about fiasco?) found it interesting at first, then decided it wasn't a good fit for me (for many of the reasons you give above). Also listened to a live podcast about another sciifi story game (can't recall which).

In the game I didn't I like the 'back-to-front' decide the outcome then tell me how the outcome occurred mechanism.

In most RPGs you make a choice and see what happens (you take a stake). In the story telling game I watched, it seems the outcome was not at all important just a frame to tell a story around. Nothing at stake (for want of a better expression) no gamble. Each game is a one shot, nothing really invested in it, a soap bubble (which is OK I guess, but not for me).

In A(D&D), like being down the pub, you can learn something about your fellow participants, in the storygame I watched, I think I only learned how good an improver the players were, and how pleased some of them were with their ability.

Also, in the storytelling game I watched it seemed more like ... "Me, me, me", my time to show off - a collective of individuals in a room, each taking turns to do a set piece, not really shared game play!

Overall, you 'learned' me some good stuff, and I may well be over generalising from a very shallow base. Ramble over!