Thursday, June 14, 2007

Game Chat: Can we turn it down a little?

I really dig the enthusiasm a lot of story-gamers bring to the hobby. Like, for instance, the Durham 3: their energy and excitement for gaming is inspiring!

But I think there's a weird tendency among a lot of people involved in internet story-game communities/fora to overvalue "the awesome". (Nathan Paoletta talked about something similar a while back, but my take is slightly different).

What do I mean?

Well, I think that the idea that "Creativity = Going Big" gets a little bit too much play.

I think I understand the origins of this trend: for years, lots of RPGs worked on a model that should be familiar to World of Warcraft players. You start with a basic, lowly peon, who is kind of generic, and then have to grind your way to the top and pay a price for customization. You had to earn the right to be awesome!

A lot of groups saw their games end prematurely with the awesomeness still off in the future, so it makes sense that one of the assumptions about how RPGs should work that has been challenged recently is the one about having to earn awesomeness. So, there's a tendency to push for awesomeness right now.

I'm cool with that! I think that having to earn awesomeness tends to make for an unfun play experience, because most groups aren't really playing their games long enough to reliably achieve that awesomeness. "Awesome Now" is necessary in order to get rid of the lingering spectre of "Awesome Later".


Sometimes when I'm reading through threads at places like Story-Games I find the constant boosting of "Awesome Now" just a little bit over the top. I completely sympathize with the intent, but, in practice, it tends to push this idea that the best gaming is gaming "turned up to 11". By which I mean: it isn't enough just to have a character who's struggling with family issues - your character needs to be Oedipus.

Hey - I like playing in "turned up to 11" games. I'm playing in one now! Judd Karlman's Dictionary of Mu might be my favorite "turned up to 11" fantasy settings ever: it's a mix of Robert E. Howard, Edward Rice Burroughs's Martian stories, Dune, and the Bible, tied together with an aesthetic that (to me) feels like it was derived from the cover art of 1970s Heavy Metal albums. The character I'm playing in a current game is the half-alien master of a Demonic gladiatorial arena. His first scene involved stopping a slave revolt led by a four-armed albino ape-man. And his storyline has been a bit more subdued than that of his fellow player characters! (James, our GM, has a great play write-up, here).

It is, indeed, an awesome game.

And one of the games I'm preparing right now is a pulp sci-fi adventure using Spirit of the Century, which is definitely another "turned up to 11"-style game.


It seems to me that the constant praise of the awesome tends to overwhelm the idea that more restrained story-gaming can be satisfying, too. In fact, the best story-game experience I've had over the last year - a game of Breaking the Ice that I played with a friend - was of the muted/restrained/matter-of-fact variety. This game was set just after WWII: it involved a returning vet courting a young woman who had lost her fiance early in the war and had spent the war years alone. It was a pretty quiet game: there were no big scenes, no crazy reversals, no convoluted family trees. Just two damaged people trying to connect with each other. It was a very enjoyable game, a moving story, and a meaningful experience. But it wasn't "awesome".

Part of the problem is a cultural one: we're used to hype, to bigger-is-better, so that's what we emphasize when we write about our games. But, as Scott points out in his comments on this post, we often get a sense of the possibilities of good gameplay from reading other groups' play accounts. In this spirit, and so this isn't just me being negative, I'm going to finally write up that BTI game and post it at the Forge.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to the writeup on the BtI game, and I hope I can wrangle myself into that Spirit of the Century game!

You're right tho about human issues being as rife with dramatic scale (since it's really a question of how much one person's world is rocked, not necessarily the literal world)-tho I am a bit tone deaf to that as the Witch King. I need to play a game where the physical isn't an option, sometime.

Jon Hastings said...

I'd definitely want you to try out SotC. I'm kinda ambitious (maybe too ambitious) withr egard to my SotC plans: I want to run it for my brothers and our high school rpg group this winter, but before I do that I want to "test" it out on one or two other groups. So... if you don't mind being a guinea pig... Heh.

James said...

Jon: this is a very interesting post, and I agree with you about Story-Games' obsessive need to praise things.

I might have a lot to say about this, but I want to make sure I understand what you mean.

I'll make a distinction between Big (or Small) Conflict vs. Loud (or Soft) Voice.

BIG + LOUD = The Matrix, Die Hard.

SMALL + SOFT = Remains of the Day, Lost in Translation.

SMALL + LOUD = Fight Club, Being Jon Malkovich, American Beauty

BIG + SOFT = Nixon, (um possibly other movies I haven't seen).

Jon, do these categories help at all? I can read your post as either a request toward Smaller Conflicts, or a request toward Softer Voices, or both at once. But maybe I'm completely off the mark?

Braccia said...

I think what Jon's getting at is that
intellectual property/game color and/or gimmicky but enjoyable game mechanics provide a certain level of bombastic "awesome!" entertainment, but that this creative choice is sort of an example of carrying over an aesthetic from the sorts of entertainments you would assume story-gamers would want to move away from, if really interested in the narrative/character development opportunities these games are set up to provide. It could be because:

a) Although we might not like to admit it, we sorta dig that aspect of movies/video games/comics

b) With the wide canvas provided by most story gaming engines, gamers choose to author things "like" what they're already comfortable with, or at least, an outrageous, "up to 11" version of such.

To speak to the points of differentiation, I think what Jon is looking for is game set-ups that are equipped to deliver, for lack of better terms, poignancy and verisimilitude versus OMG that was
so teh awesome teh!

That doesn't mean that the conflicts can't be big, just that it's not their "bigness" that's the draw.

Jon Hastings said...

Nick - Let me clarify a little:

First, although I do think "system matters", what I'm looking at here is not just about game design but also about the way people talk about their own play experiences at places like Story-Games or on gaming podcasts. Scott's point (from his comments to my other post) about how the expectations we bring to a game (from our own experience and from reading other groups' play accounts on the web) is central here. With that said, I think it may be important to emphasize that satisfying, good, creative gaming can occur without the need to be "teh awesome".

So, I'm not sure that (in this post at least) I'm looking for differently designed games. I suspect that there are games out there (aside from Breaking the Ice) that would provide satisfying, low-key, poignant play, but those are values that aren't being "pushed", as it were, by the online community. (Hey - I don't think anyone has a responsibility to push these values. I would like to see more of it, but I recognize that for that to happen I'm going to have to do it myself - i.e., finally post that BtI play account. Hey pt. 2 - it's easier to yak about this stuff than actually go write the damn play account!)

Also, I'd point out that I like "turned up to 11" games just fine. Apart from the Dictionary of Mu game Scott and James (and Eric) and I are doing right now (which is definitely enjoyable, exciting, satisfying, and, yes, awesome), I'd point to the PTA game we played with Andy last year. That was a great game! It was awesome! I want that, too. But it's this other thing - like what we did in BtI - that I'm not seeing too much of.

As for reasons: I don't quite agree with your (a) and (b), but I think I'll need a whole new post to explain why.

James - I like that breakdown. I'd just add another variable, which is something that Nick hints at: what I'll call the Vertigo Factor - i.e., what is the likelihood that the characters in your game would show up in a Vertigo comic. (I like Vertigo comics - I'm not just being snarky, really! ;) ) So, for example, a game of Breaking the Ice based on Lost in Translations (SMALL + SOFT) but where the two main characters are Warlocks, would not be the kind of thing I think we need to see more of.

Er, that's badly phrased: I'm happy to see more of it, I just don't think there's a noticeable absence of that kind of gaming going on.

I'd also point out that this whole thing is really inspired by a number of podcasts I've been listening to. I noticed that there was a tendency for the podcasters to "sell" the story-games they were talking about by playing up how, unlike in D&D, your character can start off doing super-cool, high-powered things. I don't know: the idea that I can play a game where I get to be a Warren Ellis character is pretty enticing (especially based on a history of play where that might have been blocked), but if a whole bunch of gamers are consistently making stories about nothing but Warren Ellis characters then I think there's some room for variety.

Anonymous said...


If it's before the school year starts, I think I want to be a playtest guinea pig!

Even if you're testing mechanics in small bursts! I'm interested in seeing how the game works myself!

Re: The Big/Small, Loud/Soft model,
now I'm trying to think what is a Big/Soft movie--how about:

The Good Shepherd?

Re: This obsessive need to praise things, I wonder if that isn't an unspoken part of the group sell of indie games.. Unlike previous RPGs, where some were awake and some slept-- they try to sell that with these new games, the ritual of gameplaying should involve participants at '11' attention level.

I wonder if part of the sell of it is in the AP posts these players are making, sorta like self-help testimonials, selling these games in ones and twos. You could take the humor of this further, but it starts getting creepy then.

Jon Hastings said...

Scott - I think The Good Shepherd is definitely Big & Soft (haha - that sounds a little funny though...) in that it is dealing with this Big historical issues, but is fairly muted & low-key throughout. (James - does that check with how you meant these terms?)

I think there is a genuine market demand for Big & Loud gaming. I think there is a genuine, but smaller, demand for Small & Quiet games that may be overwhelmed by all the awesomeness.

James said...


You wrote, "The Good Shepherd is definitely Big & Soft (haha - that sounds a little funny though...) in that it is dealing with this Big historical issues, but is fairly muted & low-key throughout. (James - does that check with how you meant these terms?)"

Yes, that's pretty accurate. (And I think the "Vertigo factor" might just be another way to say Loud, but I don't want to quibble.)

So: if I understand you right, you're requesting more games that use a Softer voice.

I think that's cool, and I agree there aren't many of them. But I disagree about what's causing that.

First, I think gamers (for whatever reason) are pre-disposed toward Big conflicts. And I suspect Big + Soft seldom works well, unless you're doing a political character study.

Second, gaming involves improvisation, and I wonder if it's harder to improvise with a Soft voice. If someone points to you and says, "What happens next?!" maybe it's easier to respond Loudly? I don't think I've ever seen an improv group do, say, a midlife crisis.

I think subtlety and subtext are hard to process in real life; injecting them into a game probably requires a different skill set.

Jon Hastings said...

James -

Interesting points!

I think that's probably true in terms of taking gamers as a whole and looking at their general preferences. However, I know that there are gamers who feel differently: like Jim Henley, for example. (A lot of what I'm saying here is stuff that is inspired by Jim's take on this issue). Also, I certainly like "Big Conflicts" but I liked playing Breaking the Ice, too. I suspect (maybe because I'm a little egotistical) that there are other people like me, who would be interested in this variety. I also suspect that there are other people like Jim who are actually "turned off" by the focus on "Big Conflicts". I'm not really worried about turning people off. I do think that there's this whole spectrum of play possibilities that gets drowned out under the cries of "Awesome". (Also - I don't think that that's anyone else's responsibility or problem to deal with. If I'm interested in pursuing and talking about this kind of play, it's on me to do so.)

So - to what extent is this a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when Scott's point about "how we know how to play" is taken into account. That is, if I'm basing my play on accounts that I've read on Story-Games, I might push for "Creativity = Going Big/Loud". I might really like that! That doesn't mean I also might really like "Going Small/Soft", but that might be off my radar.

Especially when it comes to gamers, I think it's interesting to examine what's underlying the preference. So for story-gamers: Is it because (1) "Big/Loud Conflicts" are the way they've always done it? Or is it because (2) they discovered "Big Conflicts" which solved a certain set of problems and now, because they don't want those problems to crop up again, it's "Big/Loud Conflicts" all the time? I admit, my suspicions lean towards (2).

I also think that we hear a lot about "Big Conflicts" and "You Can Do Cool Stuff" on gaming podcasts and Story-Games because those are things that a lot of frustrated adventure gamers are looking for. So, story-game enthusiasts, quite naturally, want to point up these aspects of the games they play. I suspect that a lot of people started playing D&D-type games because they wanted to have a certain kind of interactive entertainment (I don't want to put the word "escapist" in here, because it has such pejorative connotations, but if you can imagine me using this word descriptively and positively, add "escapist" in there in between "interactive" and "entertainment") where they got to be Legolas or Indiana Jones. I know from experience that a lot of D&D-type games do not satisfy this desire. (Or rather, figuring out how to satisfy this desire with these kinds of games takes a bit of work).

Hey - this is tangential, but:

I think that for some people the draw of a game like Nine Worlds is: "Hey, this allows us to address themes in a much more focused/satisfying way than Amber DRPG does!"

But I think that for some people the draw of Nine Worlds is more like: "Hey, this allows us to have your character be as cool as we want, right away, with no grind, as opposed to (say) WW's Mage game, where the GM can stop you from being cool if she's in a bad mood."

My guess is that a lot of the "evangelism" by story-games fans is directed more at people who might fall into this second category than people who might fall into the first, if only because it is easier to sell "creates cool" than "creates theme".

I think your second point is interesting, especially thinking about our game of Capes, where, . However, I kinda want to say: "system matters". That is, Breaking the Ice and Spione and 1001 Nights all facilitate "soft" contributions to the story. (Not that you can't also do "Big/Loud" in BtI or Spione or 1001 Nights, but, as opposed to, say, Dust Devils, it is by no means the default).