Gaming is a tricky thing to discuss because of how big a subject it is. Just off the top of my head I can pull out War Games, Board Games, Video Games, Role Playing Games, Hobby Games, Casual Games, Party Games, Story Games, Arena Games, Live Action Role Playing Games, and Drinking Games. I enjoy most of them to one degree or another, especially the drinking games. Enjoying them isn’t really the problem though, it’s talking about them. How do you define a certain type of game? How do you rate it? What standards do you use? Is the design solid? How can you tell?
Answering these question is important to me because I don’t think it’s enough to say the game is fun. What’s fun to one person isn’t necessarily fun to another. So how does one define their fun? I think it takes some self-analysis. You need to look back at your experiences and ask yourself why you enjoyed a game. What parts of the game were enjoyable? What parts weren’t? Do you like working with people to overcome an obstacle? Are you more interested in competing to win? Do you like managing your resources better than the next person or do you want that plus the ability to hinder your opponents with clever timing and moves? Should the game be an even contest where skill is the only thing that matters or is the luck of the die determine the difference between victory and defeat more your speed? There are so many variables for games out there I think a large list of attributes could be amassed.
So to assist you in finding your fun I’ll share some of the things I’ve discovered about myself.
I really enjoy role playing games but I’m not as interested in games where combat mechanics take up most of the rule book anymore. What I want from them is a collaborative storytelling experience. This isn’t to say I don’t like the fighting parts of RPGs but I know the games with combat are rigged. In a lot of classical RPG’s (I know I’m taking a big risk by calling them classical, even games from the 80’s and 90’s had what we consider modern mechanics by today’s standards) the GM was a judge, there to impartially rule on the game mechanics based on the adventure written. That was the assumed role regardless of who wrote the scenario being played. I feel this has drastically shifted over the years to the GM being someone who has ultimate authority in “classical” games. It basically means they’re the final authority, not just on rules, but on the stories direction. This means if the players screw up and all die it’s the GMs fault because regardless of what happened the GM didn’t need to let the party die. The commonly accepted good GM provides the illusion of challenge while making the players feel like they’re overcoming the obstacles set in front of them while making choices which change the world. In reality this all goes through the filter of the GM. Nothing of consequence happens without the GMs say so or a clutch die roll. Remember, this is what I’m calling classical games. Games in the ilk of D&D, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Traveler, BRP games, and Mutants and Masterminds. Combat, which is the primary form of conflict in many of these games, is the largest offender. The GM can always stack the deck to kill a group or can use his powers to shift an unwinnable fight into something dramatic. The trick is making the players believe it was their decisions which made the event play out whichever way it did. That’s a skill I feel excellent GM’s have. It’s also a problem for me.
Games where I can have my ideas vetoed by the GM, where I can’t make something happen just because I would like it too, aren’t as fun for me. Games where the story is preplanned and my actions only impact the world in small ways aren’t interesting. As a GM I’m starting to find all these games to be formulaic in how they work. So while I like the combat aspects of D&D I know they’re rigged, making the thrill of victory and defeat feel a little hollow. Because of that view I play these games from a different lens. I look to see how the situation plays out. I play to push character stories and internal drama and I watch how the external stories play out as if I’m watching for the Meta plot of a TV show. This happened to me over time and in a subconscious manner. It wasn’t until I started trying to figure out what I liked about RPGs today, and what was missing from them for me, that I came up with a list for what I wanted. Here it is:
- Internal character drama supported by mechanics.
- A story I can be surprised by and contribute too in meaningful ways.
- A randomizer which doesn’t negate the games progression but drives it.
- A competitive element because I like to compete.
These are the elements of games which are fun for me. I expect it to be different for everyone. For me I don’t think RPG’s can cover all of them. Internal character drama, a surprising story I can contribute too, and a randomizer which pushes progression of the game are very RPG. The competitive element doesn’t work because I know the game is rigged. It’s why I’m fascinated with the OSR because a lot of old school gaming tries to recapture that old feeling of GM’s acting as Judges. I want that fair and impartial judging where being clever could get you past a lot of things. Those games weren’t character in the world stories, they were very much player vs module. That meant a lot of those games were lacking what I was looking for in my first three areas of interest. It’s why I play board games like Descent and Arena video games like League of Legends. They’re antagonistic teamwork games.
With my competitive fix in I started to look at Indy games. Now here comes the tangent. I’m not sure Indy games is an apt term because compared to the larger world I would say all RPG game companies produce Indy games but for the sake of this conversation we’ll say anything not WotC, Piazo, Margaret Weis, or Pinnacle related is an Indy game. Indy games like Fiasco, or Apocalypse World and its clones promote narrative storytelling. Fiasco is almost an improv acting exercise where the decisions you make allow you to introduce or resolve a scene as a player and then the rest of the group gets to decide the other portion for you. The dice rolling at the end just ties together the story you’ve told so far. The Apocalypse World games use the dice rolls to drive story, never letting it stall out. Something always happens when you roll 2d6. That something is either bad, what you want with a cost, or good for your character. It’s never nothing.
Those games both drive the game through their randomizer.
I like Fate because it has a mechanic for internal character drama, Aspects. Aspects can reflect a change in the characters beliefs and mental state over time. Fate also allows me to contribute to the story in meaningful ways through their setting creation system where all the players, this includes the GM, get to help decide what will be a part of the setting of the game. It’s still got some of the problems with its randomizer but Fate points help balance out the problem by giving you a choice of when you want to fail, while also letting your character be compelled to make character decisions even if they’re not optimal for the group. Best part is you’re rewarded by gaining a fate point.
So that’s me, the games I’m into, and why I’m into them right now. But that’s just one person’s fun. So take some time, think about what’s fun for you, and please share it with me in the comments section. I’d like to see your fun and how different it is from me.