Monday, November 11, 2013

Congratulations, It's A Mousetrap.

Have you heard the news? Changing the rules changes how the game works!

I know I've heard the news--pretty much every single day since I found out people talked about games on the internet.

You can hear about it on DIY D&D blogs like this one where people talk about how having low hp makes the game more about outside the box solutions, you can hear about it from game designers when they talk about how their game cleverly incentivizes this or that, unlike all previous games.

And this is worth saying--if it's worth talking about games, you might want to talk about how they work.

But you know what changes how games work way more than changing the rules?

New ideas about what kind of fun things you could have in the game.

I have a game. It, like all games, was not custom-made for me and therefore is flawed. But with a couple kicks, it does exactly what I want it to do. That's a trivial problem. What I want is ideas about what to do with it.

Matt Finch put out Swords & Wizardry--as game design it's fuck-all, just a retread of what's already in D&D, and Matt will readily admit that: it'a just a tool of convenience.

He then got on to the much more relevant business of producing new ideas--Spire of Iron & Crystal, Tome of Adventure Design. That's where the innovation is.

Same with James Raggi: Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a few clever updates to the D&D Basic rules, but the supplements have hundreds of useful ideas of what to do with any game once you have it going.

The ways changing the system changes the game experience are harder to explain than the ways changing the content does but they aren't actually more important.

You found out a new, better, way to tell a player, in game language "You can play a wizard with a sword". Good on you! Now it's time for the first session, and the one after that, and the one after that and the one after that for a year. Do you have any ideas about how to fill all those hours?

I wonder about the personal gaming experiences of people who spend all their time under the hood trying to build a better mousetrap and apparently no time building new content.

If they're designing tabletop RPGs, presumably they've been playing them for a long time. And if they've been playing them for so long, why are they so convinced games are in crisis and that the best use of their time is addressing this crisis?

-Have they just, for a decade or whatever been unable to figure out how to make existing games work for them? Despite continually playing them?

-Are they designing for some imagined audience they don't belong to? Is that why so much of it seems so passionless and condescending?

Y'know Kenneth Hite? Mr RPG Creativity? That guy runs straight up Call of Cthulhu. All that time hanging out with  Robin Laws and he's still just playing that old thing. Because he's busy thinking up what ideas to put in the damn game, not endlessly replacing hubcaps.

It's like the Dungeon Bastard said: what edition should I play? Whatever fucking edition is there, man.

Y'know that guy who spent all that time ten years ago talking about how System Matters? The best games yet produced by all the people who believed him all basically just say "Here's a new system to do that thing You Always Had Trouble With. Now go make up your own content".

Well thanks, but you did the easy part and went and left the hard, interesting, infinitely-extendable part up to me.

If the game's got three rotating groups fighting each other on a jewel-tinted Salvador Dali landscape of war machines vat-bred from the cast-off DNA of titans who died defending the planet from the eminent return of demons that rewire physics by modulating the screams of their sacrifices who the fuck cares if it's a skill system or race-as-class?

If it's out of tune: by all means tune it.

But then if you don't fucking go somewhere in that car? Why even bother, Captain Slow?

Innovation is great, but most of the real and useful innovation I've seen hasn't been "Oh let's count d6s instead of d100s, that'll pack 'em in!"--the translate-and-die tricks in Death Frost Doom, the game-changing, plot-derailing things new spells can do in Rolemaster and Dungeon Crawl Classics, the way the One Page Dungeons organize content and deliver a dungeon, and the cool knock-on effects of Jeff's Party Like Its 999 table--there's some innovation I can actually use, not a patch for a problem I never had. They assume the pencil works and then go and draw something with it.

Here's a double dog dare:

Let's see a Dungeon Dozen-equivalent for a game like Dread--new, interesting set-ups and hacks with twists for that game every day.

Let's see a blog dedicated to new ways to use Shock for long term campaigns. See if you can cross-pollinate with the Traveller and 40k ideas the DIY D&D community spits out three times a week like it's no thing.

You like tactical combat in 4e or 13th Age? Let's see some One Page Dungeon-style accessible crazy fucking over the top set-piece encounter madness--like WOTC's Dungeon Delve only not totally mundane and flavorless and pointless with like a Master BoneEater Ghoul and 3 Slavedull Ghouls and a candlestick. Like gimme a dungeon room encounter I can pick up and it's just evocative, beautiful, useful and nuts.

Just assume, for once, we actually all managed put the key in the ignition, turned it, and the car started rolling. Where are we going, you guys?


Barry Blatt said...

Yup. I've had some really stupid arguments about this - a bloke insisting that he is going to do a wizzo new 'stealth/assassination' game with all kinds of clever mechanics, and not accepting that I did just that the week before in scenario using dull old BRP rules and could rewrite the while shebang for D&D or indeed any system at the drop of a hat and that he was wasting his time thinking about rules, when he should have been thinking about interesting heists, infiltrations, burglaries, muggings, prison breaks etc etc to actually play with whatever rules come to hand because quite frankly THAT didn't matter a damn. Pillock.

Nagora said...

"I wonder about the personal gaming experiences of people who spend all their time under the hood trying to build a better mousetrap and apparently no time building new content."

Speaking as someone that went through that phase for years, I'd say that making systems is what people are good at. It's the facility with making mental models that has made us as a species masters of the world (but don't tell the beetles). But the cost is that those models can become hypnotic and in other fields the ever-present danger is that we then want to make the world match our beautiful, beautiful model. Many economists fall prey to this and so do most dictators so, hey, be happy that we're just shoving little lead figures about.

Christopher Sheets said...

I vote we put Zak in charge of everything. Beautiful, succinct, to the point, and holding the proper feet to the fire ... makes me want to crank up my car and drive.

Arnold K said...

I wish I could stop thinking about dice mechanics. It's just chronic mental masturbation for my left hemisphere. Sorry for blogging about them.

Unknown said...

Mechanics bounce around in my brain all the time, and I can't help thinking about them... I think they're beautiful. I guess it's some kind of diagnosis or combination of letters.

So I tinker away at some half-finished "heartbreaker" or another... but I play at least a game per week and so when game night comes around I still whip out my LotFP rules (hacked and fiddled with, of course) and we just get going.

This comment isn't saying anything you didn't... sorry. In just wanted to chime in and agree with you.

Konsumterra said...

In my club there is a subgroup of anti dnd/brp cthulhu gamers who all fancy themselves wanabe designers - their choice seems to boil down to not wanting to do any maths (divide by 5 or add some 2 digit numbers) and hipper than thou only new is good sentimentality. Reasons seem more like reasons to dislike music or clothes. I tried a 4th ed game after hearing how crap it is from the last year or oldschool bloggers and a great DM made dice rolling rare even though he had 2 boxes of manuals, npc and villain decks and set in the forgettable reams he made game shine. DM is still the best game product everything else is just a prop or a shortcut. Im liking the trend of OSR rule sets imbedded in setting as not alot more to be said in field of rule mods. I liked ACKs and LFP suggestons for domains but i just wing it. My players at 12th lv dont care about money anymore - playing the interaction with other leaders more fun than having better accounting rules (besides pendragon is still my choice).

der eisenhofer said...

People seem kinda obsessed with the next better system, I suspect that to be caused by games without support idea-wise. Pretty much what you wrote, Zak. Since the system doesn't (can't) produce the imagination the cover promised more than once (because, you know, no modules but the introdutory thing in the core rules), it gets boring. And people blame the game, believing grabbing a new one from the shelves will solve the problem.

The most successful german RPG Das Schwarze Auge is also the game with the most modules there. Go figure.

Stuart K. said...

I am totally down to organize a one-page-set-piece-battle thing. Would people be interested in doing submissions for it?

Zak Sabbath said...

I bet they would--the key will be getting good diagrams, packed with info

Snowman0147 said...

My god I had that bug before. Now given I like tinker with systems, but now it is just simple fixes. Hell the only reason why I am building a game system now is just something for me to sale in the future. As in I am just making system that you can pretty much treat it like dnd and other old games that can support various settings. Sick of building systems that can only support one game.

Stuart K. said...

Putting something up today. Will run it as a contest and totally kick in real life prizes to the winner.

"One 8.5x11 page, must include map, enemy tactics, at least one unique monster and at least one unique environmental/rule gimmick. Design, innovation and fun are the judging criteria" sound about right?

Zak Sabbath said...

I would include concision and clarity as criteria, and give an example

Stuart K. said...

Vanguard said...

Maybe I'm misreading this post, but:

"But you know what changes how games work way more than changing the rules?

New ideas about what kind of fun things you could have in the game."

Seems to miss that rules influence this too. I'm not even necessarily talking about the number of dice you roll or how many sides they have.

Rules incentivize certain kinds of behavior. You what D&D has rules for? Killing monsters (monsters defined as enemy combatants). That's not a criticism. The ruleset is built to engender that experience and does it well.

But let's say you want to play a game about political intrigue in a Noble's court a la Game of Thrones? You certainly could use D&D (any edition) to do so, but the mechanics don't jive as well as other systems that can represent things like influence, complex social interaction, and reputation.

Of course, after years of trying systems, I've learned there is no one universal system - each game encourages a style of play and the best thing you can do is figure out the kind of game (the fiction, which seems to be what you're most concerned with here) and choose a game that best supports it.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yes, you are misreading.

The idea that "rules incentivize certain kinds of behavior" is PRECISELY the kind of 101-level "Yes, (pat pat on the head), we all already know that " insight I am pointing out and asking we move on from.

When someone patient explains that "rules incentivize behavior" and then gives an example about how D&D incentivizes killing monsters the next thing I expect them to say is that "Wheels are round and roll, and the rounder the wheel, the faster the car goes!".

But maybe you're new here and didn't know that.

Anyway: if you didn't know that ---

Yes, Vanguard,
Everyone figured that out years ago.
There are many other things worth knowing and doing. Let's do them

Vanguard said...

You don't need to be a dick about it. Moving on.

I'm curious how this "obvious insight" fits alongside you're invective rant against building new mousetraps. If the rules you're using don't encourage the kind of behavior you want, do you adjust your content or the system? I would argue in favor of changing the system.

Zak Sabbath said...

"If the rules you're using don't encourage the kind of behavior you want"
...then change a rule, or two rules, or the set-up, or procedures, or the system.

Also, you said a _completely wrong_ thing.

This is not an "invective rant against" a thing.

If you think that, it suggests you did not actually read the post all the way through.

It is a call to people to remember there are other things to do besides that one thing and a set of questions about people who seem to do nothing else other than that one thing.

Do you grasp this mistake that you have made or do you need me to explain it again?

For me (and for most RPG authors I like), getting the behavior I want out of the people at the table is a solved problem.

Like everyone else, I ask the community for tools to solve problems I have, not ones I do not have.

X said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
X said...

I'm sure this has been said somewhere so I may not be adding anything new to the conversation, but here is my observation:
At the most basic, there's a Venn Diagram out there with three circles. The left most circle is only DM stuff - usually Monsters, encounter info, crunchy charts full of random information that is useful for resolving in game questions,.(I want to run the game) The right most circle is Player Stuff - players want info about new character options, new treasures. (I want to play my character) There's a circle in the middle that has stuff for both DM's and Players (I would think setting, rules for combat). You can see an example of the Venn diagram is present in the original white box as Player's Handbook (players only ), DM handbooks (players, DM) and Monster Manual (DM only).

In any case, this comment here:
"if it's worth talking about games, you might want to talk about how they work."

If you agree with the first point and we're just talking about "things the DM needs to do to engage their players then the Venn diagram starts to exponentially bigger (There's probably 9+ legit player mental profiles in various degrees of priority that interface with each other, like WOTC's Spike/Johnny/Timmy/Melvin/Vorthos) but at the core, I would start with the assumption that the type of people who are attracted to getting under the hood aren't always about improving the experience through creating content - they are "Melvinss" who get turned on by the rules optimization because that is what they are good at. On the other end of the extreme scale are the storyteller guys who can spend seven paragraphs telling you about Oran the Green's Lord's black eyes and how he got them, and give you absolutely nothing to work with from an adventuring perspective.

As I read more of the OSR content I get sensitive, and just exhausted by, the incredibly loud conversation that's going on in regards to rules, or in regards to story, and I ultimately I agree - it's easy to fall into that trap of "oh, this treasure table is totally broken and I can fix it" or "oh, this special ability is too powerful in a multi-class context and we should try a solution" or" oh , Jake wants to play a hexblade and needs rules for that" or " Omigod I just wrote 9 pages of backstory on that NPC that no one is going to read about".

So I have the same conclusion as Zak, as a middle of the road DM I just don't have the time to waste getting sidetracked by those things. My goal is giving my players what they want, and ultimately, what they want is a good experience and good content. Everytime I generate a new room or a weird puzzle, or build a system that can help me generate something that's geniunely interesting, I'm exercising my Content Creation Muscle. As that gets better, the circle of influence seems to naturally grow as well - the players are genuinely interested in the content and help me with the story, and the rules seem to police themselves (at least at this point, it's all pretty lose.)

Zak Sabbath said...


Since your comment referred to a game by an asshole pigfucker and it would be therefore unethical to risk even one more person learning the name of this person and then possibly googling it and then buying a copy and then making him money,I have erased the comment and replaced it with an altered version

"I donno about this post.

Sure, it's important to remember that the fictional setting is as important for producing new interactions and fun as the mechanics, and it's good to be reminded of that.

But honestly, ideas are easy. Ideas are a dime a dozen. We have more cultural information to mine for ideas than we'll ever be able to use. So I, for one, am not really interested in reading more setting material or detailed modules. Sketches are nice, cause they can provide a framework to build on, and they can also take you out of the areas you feel comfortable running.

Sometimes I'll come across setting material or adventures that make me go "Oh that's awesome, I'd never have thought of that." And there's also merit in taking the weight of the GM's shoulders, because even if ideas are easy work, it's still work, and the GM has a lot on her plate. But what I really like are games where the mechanics get the people at the table, who you're presumably playing with because you like their ideas, to generate the ideas together.

And games like (names redacted) they create situations and relationships I've never seen in setting material, because they weave the setting and mechanics in such a way that it's really hard to disentangle them, and that specificity of interaction makes them really compelling, at least for me.

I'm all for new ideas, and new adventure seeds, etc, and I agree that the people and ideas generally matter more than mechanics. And I definitely agree that endless re-releases of 'the same game but different because now the rules are better' is boring. But if I have to choose between running an awesome module in a system that doesn't do anything other than get out of the way, or generate ideas with my friends, and then run them in a system that has an aggressive opinion on how play should go, I'll choose the second every time.

" But what I really like are games where the mechanics get the people at the table, who you're presumably playing with because you like their ideas, to generate the ideas together."

Then I am glad for your sake that there are so many products on the market that aid you by providing rules support for this thing that everyone I know does without any rules support.

"But if I have to choose between running an awesome module in a system that doesn't do anything other than get out of the way, or generate ideas with my friends, and then run them in a system that has an aggressive opinion on how play should go, I'll choose the second every time."

I am glad for your sake that so many products exist which provide this service which you desire and which bores the ever-living shit out of me.


However--this is my blog, so I am not writing about things that Countercheck wants and which are useless to me, I am writing about what I want.

Zak Sabbath said...

(My comments on your comment are at the end there)

Unknown said...

was it Gary who wrote about paladins not partying together because only one, or maybe only two in case of a world destroying threat? or was it someone after that? anyway, so the reason they stay apart is that their horses electrically go together like Voltron, but I cant decide what they form at all. I was thinking hydra, but hydra has already been explained in several cool ways. Remember 'the host' was actually a gestalt of river life? or an old school 50' tall iron golem would be very voltron like, but why would horses turn into that? um, maybe more like something that would make shigenori soejima pull his pants down, like it would be an amped super horse, like pegusus + unicorn + the 8 legged viking one with some kind of size change ... hastag did I just become a bronie? anyway, these are not my thoughts these are my interpretations of other peoples thoughts. best wishes.