Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I'm having a lot of fun getting back into playing tabletop RPGs. I'm also having a lot of fun reading a bunch of cool blogs about RPGs, like this one--Deep in the Game. There's lots of good theoretical stuff there for anyone interested in playing (or designing) games.

I want to respond here to Bankuei's most recent post, where he complains about RPGs that don't have any rules about how to actually play them. He talks about playing in a game that had incomplete rules and how he--at first--felt guilty for not adding in his own rules to make the game better. And then he realized:

"It's NEVER my fault if I'm following the rules..."

This really struck a chord with me.

Over the last few years, I started playing a lot of boardgames, because playing RPGs just got too frustrating. But because I am a nerd and a recovering graduate student, I wasn't content to, you know, just play boardgames, I had to keep up with all the internet chatter and boardgame design/theory stuff.

One thing I noticed almost immediately was a big philosophical split when it came to judging how well a game worked. (I'm generalizing here, but just barely).

On one side were the people who primarily played "German Games" (like Settlers of Catan). Their position was that if you play the game by the rules and the experience is generally fun-good-interesting, then the game is probably good. If fun-good-interesting stuff isn't happening, then the game is most likely bad, and you might as well just not play it.

On the other side were the people who primarily played "American Hobby Games" (like Axis & Allies, Age of Mythology, the Steve Jackson card games). Their position was that the players of a game should take it on themselves to try to turn any game into a fun-good-interesting experience, even if this meant adding tons of house rules or only playing the game in a very specific way (for example, "voluntarily" avoiding kinds of tactics that were known to break the game's victory conditions).

A lot of debates went like this:

Eurogamer: Game X is bad because the starting positions aren't balanced, the randomness destroys any sense of overall strategy, the middle part of the game drags on forever (even after you know exactly who is going to win), and the victory conditions are broken.

American Hobby Gamer: No, Game X is great. You're just playing it wrong.

EGer: But I'm playing it by the rules!

AHGer: Well, to play it right, you have to add these house rules my group came up with: we change the starting positions, substitute a deck of cards for the dice, and we don't let anyone win through points alone. Plus, we joke a lot at the table and do funny voices.

EGer: Ummm, okay. Well, wouldn't it make more sense to play one of the many games where the designer has, you know, actually solved all those problems before they published the game?

At this point the AHGer usually gets pretty defensive and starts attacking the EGer for being a game snob.

At least since Settlers of Catan, there's a tradition of strong, coherent Eurogames that are 100% playable out of the box, so Eurogamers see no need to expect anything less than a fully functional game.

American Hobby Gamers, however, grew up playing games like Axis & Allies, which almost requires house rules, so they have been conditioned not to expect anything more than a cool idea and a bunch of cool pieces. Whether or not the game works out-of-the-box isn't as important as whether or not they can cobble together something fun for their group from what's inside.

The thing is, these jury-rigged games are never as satisfying as actual, fully formed games--even if there is some sentimental attachment to their DIY-ness. Or rather, the only two reasons to choose to play a cobbled together, house rule-filled game rather than one of the many games that works really well without the players having to put in a few dozen hours of extra design work are (a) habit--this is what we've always done--and/or (b) enjoyment of the DIY process itself.

I have no real beef with folks to jury-riggers-out-of-habit, although I do think it's sort of strange that a lot of them seem to feel that this should be the normal way to approach games. That is, I think it should be normal to expect that if you're paying for a game it should work the way it is supposed to, and if it doesn't then the fault lies with the game itself (or its designer and/or publisher) and not with the players because they didn't put the time and effort into figuring out ways to fix it.

As for the DIYers, if you like Game X but want it to have Effect Y, why spend your time trying to change it when you could just make a game that aims at Effect Y? And again, I've found a lot of DIYers who feel that the DIY process is central to the gaming hobby. But it isn't, and this is, I think, a bad way to think about games. For example, we don't think this way about computer games: if I go on a computer game website and complain about a computer game being bad I might find people who disagree with me, but they are not likely to tell me that I should become a programmer and fix the things I don't like about it until it fits my preferences. They're much more likely to suggest a game that does fit what I'm looking for.

Which gets me back to Deep in the Game, which argues that, as gamers, we shouldn't settle for less than what we're looking for.