Tuesday, January 4, 2011

So, what do you do in this game?

I realized today, when I was looking at my collection, that there are a few of these games which don't answer that well the question in the title of this post.

Everyone who have followed the Steve Jackson Games line Transhuman Space, knows that one of the more questions about that game is "what do you do in this game"? While there are things to do, and they are even presented in the core setting book, it still seem to baffle people. Considering I myself have asked the question even after reading the book, I think they failed at presenting it like they should have. Now, imagine some other games and how they have handled that problem.

From 1981 to 1996 would Call of Cthluhu be a game where you often spend time doing things your character could barely afford, for reasons which only made sense to the player. At least that's the way it might sound when a fan of Delta Green gets going. Even though that many years and editions indicate that the problem might not be that serious, there is a disconnect between what makes sense to most CoC investigators and their players. Trail of Cthulhu solves it by introducing psychological traits, Drives, that suddenly put the reason for adventuring down on the character sheet.

How about a game like Pendragon? It has game mechanics for Glory, which makes it advantageous to behave like an Arthurian knight. I guess the theme of the game is advertised enough in the book as well.

My problem child, the game I have never managed to work for me, Traveller is another interesting piece. In that game there are three classic paths to walk, or travel if you'd permit me saying so. They are the path of the merchant, the mercenary and the sleuth. For me the biggest problem have always been that it's a big universe and the path is not as easy to discern in starlight as I had imagined. I seem to wander.

Of these four games, two can be considered oldies. But, I'd suggest that that matters little since if we compare CoC and Traveller to D&D and T&T we will find that in the latter it's easy to find out what you do. Explore, loot, kill and level up. Lather, rinse and repeat. Compare that to DragonQuest and you once again have a game that while it's very similar to D&D/T&T again it more open and less focused.  At least it seems that way from my reading it.

It could maybe be argued that games with a strong, focused setting (like Pendragon) have an easier time answering the question. Let's dodge THS and ponder Stormbringer/Elric! and Fading Suns. What do you do in Stormbringer? Planewalk and be the chess piece of the gods? I see, hand me the dice. No. Then there's Fading Suns, which have a central mystery and a structured society to play in. It should be easy, just find out why the suns are fading! Well, except that there are quite few examples of how that is done, since the reason have never been published!

Where am I heading with this? Well. I think one reason why it's harder to make some games sing is that you will have to create the reason for adventuring, and the buy-in, yourself. I never tried to do that for Traveller, and maybe that's why it didn't work for me. Maybe there is a lesson here for game designers as well as GMs. If you don't include a clear hook in game, the game should contain some clear advice on how to make it work for you, or at least point out there need to build upon what's been given. I think there are a few interesting conversations to be had about games designed from that point of view.


  1. Good point. D&D is one of the most focused games ever, even though it also allows for limitless expansion into other areas. At it's core, it really does feature the dungeon explorations above all else. Players may not even know or care why their characters are doing it, but they know the drill, and understand that's how you play it.

    Off the top of my head, the only other game I can think of that's easy to know what to do is Star Wars (assist the Rebels, fight the Empire). Maybe that's why those two games are the ones my group played the most, by far. Other, less focused games never seemed to last long when we tried them, even when we thought they were cool.

  2. Its funny but all the games you mention as being less focused, and I am 100% with you in your assessments, are the games I like. More specifically, I like them more than D&D and T&T.

    I never got into T&T but D&D IMHO is about exactly what you said; "Explore, loot, kill and level up. Lather, rinse and repeat." Although I could argue about the first element (D&D doesn't feel like its about exploration after a while since the mere act of exploring doesn't get you any XP and alot of players buy the Monster and GM books). D&D is simple. Its basic. This is why it appeals to so many people. Its easy to grasp the concept of kill thing, take its stuff. After a while though, at least for me, it got boring.

    Games that may seem less clear or focused are somewhat easier to mess with and customize for me. Traveller is a perfect example of a game where your better off answering "What do I do in this game?" with "What do you want to do?"

    Granted that can be a tricky way to go about it for GM and player alike but I've found it extremely rewarding.

  3. Interesting comments, both!

    Personally I think D&D is about exploring, if nothing else to go and search for that look and killing.

    I can definitely see why less focused games can feel interesting but hard to handle, or just the kind you need to stretch your legs.

    I wonder when the game goes from "What do I do in this game?" to "What do you want to do?" Traveller GMs seem to function that way, and I wonder if the game does it, or the persons.

    Those games which are less focused to me often seem interesting, but if I never manages to get them off the ground, does it matter?

  4. It's kind of interesting that the very thing folks don't like to have asked of/told to them in their lives is the thing that is being asked of another game: 'What's the point of it all?'

    I am not arguing that more tightly focused games of all sorts aren't or cannot be very fun, but rather, if the game one plays is intended to function a certain way, isn't it possible to have every iota of fun (or more) playing it 'wrong' according to the intended purpose of the exercise?

    This then touches upon the RP v. Game false-dichotomy of RPGs.

  5. Good thinking! I think a "tight" game can actually, by being the way it is, actually make it more fun to enjoy it 'wrong as you put it. What do you think about that? Isn't that "limit" a sure way to get creative and invent new stuff.

    A game with no limits have a tendency for me to just sit and say "cool" and not do anything. Constraints, and all that. Right?

    I disagree that it touches the RP vs game issue, though. I'd say both kinds of player will benefit from a game with a clear focus, since you will want to explore it, either within the limits or without.


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