I Tried, I Really, Really Did.

As any long-time reader of this blog knows, I've been playing role playing games for just under 40 years. (Yikes!)

In that time, I've played dozens of game systems, and owned (many) dozens more. I like trying new games - even if all they do is provide me with inspiration to try new things in another, I've gotten something from every game I've owned. The best games to me are ones that provide simple models for the events/action of the game, that give structure within which things can take place without that structure getting in the way. My preference is for systems that don't put too many restrictions on play - that fade out of sight when they're not needed. I want to tell a story, not play a board game.

I prefer not just rules "lite" games, but structure-lite games, as well.

I've admittedly struggled with the post-Y2K spate of story-driven games - games (and their derivatives) such as Spirit of the CenturyDungeon WorldFear ItselfTrail of Cthulhu, etc. I've wanted to like them, but find myself time and again getting turned off by rules or design choices.

I often see these games described and promoted as being rules-lite, driving story over game mechanics. But, invariably, I seem to find that these games provide a structure that - while maybe technically rules-lite - so intrudes upon play that I can't embrace them. They force rules upon the story in the name of balance and fairness to the players. Or they take away the game master's ability to control the elements of the story that are as-yet unknown to the players. Or they break down player actions in ways that are meant to be simplified but really do nothing but throw up subtle (or obvious, in some instances) hurdles to player agency. Or, worst of all, they do all three.

A lot of players (myself included) have had bad experiences at the hands of bad game masters. So I get it - I get the desire for games that try to use the rules to create a structure that puts limits on the game master, or forces them to treat the players in a more equitable way. But in the name of doing so, I find that these games: a) remove much of the ability of the game master to influence the story for the better (without "breaking" the rules), and b) create a structure that intrudes significantly upon the story, negatively impacting immersion and/or forcing players (even if unintentionally due to the rules implying limitations) to have their characters act in ways that they wouldn't normally choose to act.

Take for example this snippet of game play from the text of Monster of the Week:

Alan, the Keeper: “The flayed one is racing you to the car,
and it looks like it’s going to get to you before you can close the door. So Mark, what do you do now?”
Mary, playing her hunter Mark: “I kick some ass*!”
Alan: “What are you doing?”
Mary: “I’m going to smash it out the way with my baseball
bat so I can get in the car.”
Alan: “That sounds like you’re not really getting into a
fight: what’s most important? Killing the flayed one or getting
to the car?”
Mary: “Oh, yeah, killing it I guess. I’ll stop running and
just start smashing it on the head.”

(*"Kick some ass" is a player move in the game - a simplified shortcut for managing player action.)

I struggled with many things up to this point but when I read this, my head nearly exploded. Up to that point, I'd accepted - often with difficulty - some of the game designers' decisions, especially those that felt more like attempts to make the game a special snowflake by breaking role playing game traditions than attempts to provide a game that drives story. (The use of playbooks instead of character sheets, with their "check this box" layout, being one decision that I found particularly annoying.) But this one was a showstopper.

So, in the name of abiding by the simplification of player action down to a set of "moves" (as they're called in Powered by the Apocalypse games) the rules - through the above text, if nowhere else - advise the game master to force a player to change his character's action?

Seriously?

Why can't the PC try to bash the monster out of his way and get into the car? Is their some in-story reason for this? Doesn't sound like it - it just sounds like the game master is forcing the player into an action to keep to the structure of the rules. This is what I mean when I refer to structure getting in the way of story.

The situation above not only exemplifies a player having his agency taken away by the game - it also leaves the game master and player in a potentially adversarial position. What if, while fighting that monster, the player is suddenly swarmed by its buddies who were lurking in the shadows? As that player's character is being ripped to shreds, who's she going to blame for putting the PC in that situation? The game master, that's who.

One could argue that it was the player's fault - maybe she should have said that getting into the car was what was most important. So what about the monster? Obviously, it's not going to stand by and let Mark get into the car - since he's going to be forced into another move (Act Under Pressure or some such) he can't try to clear his way and is likely to suffer a negative effect as a result. Again, who's to blame if the character is swatted to the ground while trying to get into the car? (And then ripped apart by the monster and its buddies who subsequently emerge from the shadows.) The game master is - for taking away his players' options. The player tried to improve her character's chances by removing the obstacle, but the game master forced her to change her character's action to fit the game's moves.

Furthermore, the example above perfectly exemplifies what I mean by structure intruding on story because of implied restriction of player agency. The intent of Monster of the Week's rules obviously isn't to force players to adopt a set of board game-like moves but rather to provide a simple structure in place a of a potentially wide-open variety of options that will need to be adjudicated by the game master. Unfortunately, in the name of doing so - in the name of limiting that sort of game master involvement - the rules create a structure that implies there are limited options available to players. (Even if they may state somewhere that these are not the only options available, most players and game masters - especially less experienced ones - will default to the moves clearly provided by the game.)

In the hands of a reasonably good game master, a simple, game-oriented mechanic would handle this action just fine. In Call of Cthulhu for example, the Keeper could just tell the player: "You'll have to make an attack with the baseball bat - if it hits, it won't do any damage but the path to get into your car will be clear. If not, you'll be stopped and stuck fighting the creature." The decisions are all up to the player at this point - instead of forcing her into a situation where she had to revise her action to stick to the structure of the rules, the game (by way of the Keeper) has given her the options and let her decide on the course of action.

This is why I have so many problems with "story" games. And why I've found few I was able to stomach. I understand the desire for players to avoid suffering at the hands of bad game masters, but I don't believe games like this actually prevent that from happening - a bad game master will still ruin games for their players, regardless of rules. All I find games like this doing is getting in the way of the story the good game master is trying to build with their players.

I really want to like some of these games - Monster of the Week included; if it weren't for moves and playbooks instead of character sheets, I'd have few problems with the game*. Heck, I even own Kult: Divinity Lost, another Powered by the Apocalypse game, and find it mostly playable. And I do like one story-driven game, the Dresden Files RPG, a lot. It handles the Fate system best of all the Fate-driven games I've seen, even if it does get a little complicated in the character creation area.

I would love to find a modern, up-to-date monster-bashing system to replace the ones I always play. My beloved Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic is pretty old and has always been extremely rough around the edges, and it's unpopular with a portion of my game group. Beyond the Supernatural, although more polished and less of a toolbox, suffers from its age, as well. Call of Cthulhu - although updated with a shiny new (and awesome) system - is still too cosmic horror-centric for me to serve as a generic monster hunting game. Dresden Files RPG is a strong contender, but its system is too closely built around the Dresden-verse to be the generic game I'm looking for.

Anyway, the verdict's still out on Monster of the Week. But if I do decide to give it a go, I know it's going to mean having to overlook some serious issues with the system and the design choices. I really wanted and tried to like the game - I'll just have to decide if the effort to overlook its faults is worth it to me.



*Well, accept maybe also the art. The game's amateurish artwork would not be out of place in one of my mid-to-late-eighties games. In any game after Vampire: The Masquerade  - and especially those since Y2K - I expect the art to be of a higher quality, even from non-mainstream publishers.

Comments

  1. I personally see no problem with the example you pointed out. The PC was trying to do two things, the GM asked them what was more important. If the PC got a mixed result they may have done one but not the other, and which one was important.

    In a Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 game, if the monster was not adjacent to the PC they could not take a step, attack the monster, and continue to move towards the car, but if it was adjacent they could attack and then move. That's the structure of the game even if it doesn't really make sense.

    Its fine to not like a game's structure, but all games have them, some more intrusive than others (and pbta is very intrusive when it comes into play).

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    1. @StephenWarble thanks for sharing your viewpoint! I believe your Pathfinder example only strengthens my argument against game rules/structure intruding upon and impeding story, though. If someone's standing between me and my car (or racing to get their before me) then from a story perspective, I should be able to try to strike them with a bat, shoulder them out of the way, etc. to improve my chances of getting to the car safely. In real life, I'm not forced to decide to do one or the other, and if the game's structure gets in the way of that, the game's structure is a problem.

      But more importantly my issue wasn't about the ability of someone to do what the player says her PC is doing - my issue was that the framework of the game, in an effort to stimulate player agency, made the GM feel forced to say "no" to the player and make her alter her action. No game - especially one that espouses to be a story game, focused on player agency, most of which come right out and say "never tell a player no" - should put the GM in the position of saying "no" just to enforce the game's rules.

      In the original example, the player made a perfectly sound and reasonable statement of intent. The GM shouldn't have - whether because the rules said so or implied so - forced her to change her action.

      (Now, if the player had said she wanted run up, kill the monster then get in the car - that might be cause for questioning her. But she didn't - she clearly said she wanted to get the creature out of the way.)

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  2. For sure, your opinions and tastes are valid - everyone gets to like what they like, or dislike as the case may be! But as StevenWarble notes above, the point of that example is to figure out what's more important if things don't go well, plus which specific move gets triggered (and in this case what stat that means). On a 10+, the player could probably accomplish both, but on a 7-9 they'd have a hard choice to make.

    One other thing: "moves" and "playbooks" aren't MotW-specific, but part of the sub-genre of Powered by the Apocalypse games. It's still valid not to like that, obviously, but the intent at any rate is to imply the differences between a "playbook" and a "class".

    Personally, I like multiple game styles, including PbtA and OSR. They just scratch different itches and feel like different categories of games to me, somewhat analogous to liking different genres of film or music.

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    1. @Kyle Maxwell absolutely! There are obviously plenty of folks who like PbtA games - and the others I mentioned. This is just about why they're not right for me (as I said in my preferences disclaimer at the top of the post).

      As for playbooks, you should take a look at Kult: Divinity Lost, another PbtA game - it eschews the playbook for the archetype/character sheet format familiar to anyone who's played previous versions of Kult. It does PbtA better than MotW, IMO.

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    2. I definitely will take a look at Kult! MotW is one of the earliest PbtA games and it kinda shows in a lot of ways. Other games like Masks really push the conceit much further, making the moves even more about the fiction.

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  3. Thank you for helping me articluate my problems with Powered By the Apocalypse games. Its like someone designed a RPG but you are limited by a board game's rules.

    I have the same problem with FATE. Spirit of the Century has more exception based "Feats" than D&D 3.5.

    If you want a game where you can kick the Monter's @$$ and like AD&D 1E, check out Night Shift: Veterans of the Supernatural Wars.

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