Wednesday, July 10, 2013


There's improv theatre, which is fine, but a different thing. Infinite possibilities. But then we go and add numbers to games. We choose to give ourselves less than infinite possibilities, on purpose.

The ultimate reason for numbers and scores and tracked things like torch oil and number of spells and hit points and ability scores is to allow the players to feel desperation.

The purpose is that they feel how fucked they are in a minutely detailed way, with subtleties. A complexly textured desperation--unique to that situation. Against the wall and out of rope, against the door and out of strong people, against the giants and out of spells, against the grues and out of light, against the ghouls and out of clerics.

Too much crunch--too many things to track--and you can't see the fucked for the trees. You were attacked on a stat you didn't even know existed, you run out of something you didn't know you owned. You didn't get to feel desperation at all. This makes for an amazing chess game, or a typical first-go at Super Mario, but it's only fun if you immediately get to play again.

Too little crunch or description or time and you fall frozen without even seeing the mercury drop--you die and didn't even know things had gotten that serious. Full tank--empty tank.

Desperation is not the best emotion in games--triumph over desperation is. But it is the most necessary and useful--because without it you can't get to any of the best ones.

If you feel desperation, you can be sure of two things:

-You care about their character.

-You care about the outcome of the game.

If your GM's done all that, the rest is bonus points.


Unknown said...

And, if you overcome the desperation and get to the triumph, you encounter what is incredibly awesome about your little dudes. Can't beat that.

Robert Morris said...

Yup, nothing like being dragged out of the dungeon at -9 hit points, healing up, and coming back to wreak revenge on the thing that beat you down.

Josh Burnett said...

That example sounds specifically familiar, Bob!

ravencrowking said...

Excellent post, Zak.

Tedankhamen said...

Short and sweet and on target. Also why old boardgames like Risk or Monopoly can still thrill while newfangled ones like Game of Thrones can bore you with minutia...

Jason kielbasa said...

and thanks for providing some completely unexpected desperation last Saturday night even if it was at the expense of your won little dude dying in the 2nd round you got to play him.

Filippo Bettoschi said...

Desperation and triumph over it: that is really the point of adventuring.
Well done!

Adam Dickstein said...

I'm not sure I understand this:

"Too little crunch or description or time and you fall frozen without even seeing the mercury drop--you die and didn't even know things had gotten that serious. Full tank--empty tank."

Meaning the GM can just say you die because there are no rules against them doing so?

James Holloway said...

A sufficiently simple system (or system with very few things to keep track of; it might be complex in other ways) might not have a lot of room between "OK" and "done for," I think is the point. So you could go from fine to finished without ever getting to be in the fun "Oh crap!" space in between.

Zak Sabbath said...

James has the right of it.

_Something_ in the game needs to let you know that you are in trouble.

W said...

good post.

i think there's an extra dimension to the improv/game distinction, w/r/t desperation -- it seems to me more accurate to say that when you play a game, the game's the primary engine for pushing you toward desperation, but in straight-up improv you're more responsible for assessing the situation (the available metric is 'do we and the audience think we're being funny/interesting') -- you're the engine -- and that's extra stressful if you haven't mastered it. i imagine that's part of what people are trying to get away from by playing games in the first place?

the experience of doing improv definitely has a huge OH CRAP element to it, but how you're doing can't be determined objectively (except 'are they paying attention?'). so improv (and more improv-ish storygames!) will favour a specific mindset, or goal, or somethingorother?