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Apr 05 2012

Gaming as a Conversation

I was reading someones post as a referral from the Old School Gamers group on Facebook. I lurk there and read stuff but don’t say to much. In any case the blog post had some comments in it about skill checks being like buttons the players can press similar to video games. In other words the players will say things like

“I want to roll diplomacy to convince the guy.”

or

“I want to roll athletics to jump over the gap.”

That’s a viable play style. I know people who play their games like that. I’m not interested in that kind of game at all. I’m also not interested in games where the mechanics get out of the way of the game. Like those sessions people talk about where no one rolled a die and we “Role Played” out everything. I don’t even know if this is a play style. It’s more like an improv exercise, which can be fun, but where’s the game. If your GM made you make some decisions, like forcing you to choose between things your character values, and there were repercussions, then sure, you were playing some sort of game, even if you weren’t engaging the mechanics of the actual game you’re playing. I’m not so interested in this game either. Sure, it can be fun, but it’s lacking something for me.

Somewhere in the middle is a blend. Games where you’re telling a story and the mechanics support the story being told. I especially like games with the idea of having a conversation and the mechanics of the game intercede at points of drama. I got this idea from Vincent Baker, creator of Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Kill Puppies for Satan, and other great games. Apocalypse World has the game set up as a conversation where the GM has an agenda but the agenda is about creating an interesting game for the players while staying true to the setting and fiction. In play the GM and players have a conversation, trying to stay immersed in the world as much as possible, and when something in the fiction occurs that requires resolution the mechanics engage, dice are rolled, the situation is resolved, and the conversation continues with the aftermath of the conflict to be reacted to as part of the fiction. There’s a lot more to it in Apocalypse World than that, but the idea is the game is a conversation, and the mechanics engage when necessary to support and move the story.

Apocalypse World works as a rule book because it tells us how we should play the game. A lot of other games are more vague. They give us mechanics to resolve situations or actions but they don’t tell us how those mechanics interact with our stories. They’re more like tool boxes. I like tool box games because they’re freeing. They leave it up to us as GM’s to design what we want out of the game. It’s important to realize what these tool boxes do well and what they’re weak at resolving. Once we understand this we can change our games to achieve the feels we want or pick a different game that does.

I try to run games with a conversational feel. Even in the midst of super tactical gridded combat I insert conversation. When the initiative rolls around to an NPC and the bullets are flying, or spells are being flung, I would suggest you don’t stop the conversation. Engage your mechanics then go right back to the story every time. When you don’t quite hit your target number give it a moment in the fiction to say how your character just wasn’t good enough or how the baddy you were going after was really impressive in that moment. Maybe you’ll find an aspect of the game you never realized you were missing.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

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