Friday, June 17, 2005

The Book and the Game

So I am writing a Role Playing Game called Full Light, Full Steam in which you play officers in a Steampunk Victorian Space Navy. It's more elaborate than that, but really, that's all the context you need for the ensuing discussion. At present, I have about 80% of the book written, and I am trying to structure the section which describes putting together a game and making characters. I have tried throughout the book to make the entire thing 'safe' to read by all players in the game; there are no GM Secrets or anything to that effect. The problem I am coming up with now is a rather simple, but frustrating question, that being: who is reading the book?

I always read the book of the game that I'm playing. I usually read cover to cover. I find the game mechanics sections as engaging as the setting sections. I enjoy the experience of the entire game developing in my mind's eye. I am, in other words, something of a freak. I know some other people might read like this (I'm looking at you, Brand), but on the whole, I have the distinct impression that most players do not. Some may only want to read the setting; some folks who aren't verbal/linguistic learners want the system to be explained to them by a real person with concrete examples of dice in their hands. Some people just don't read the books but still want to play the game. There's nothing wrong with these approaches; they're how people prefer to approach their games, and I'm not going to tell them that they're enjoying their hobby incorrectly. It does, however, make writing the game a trifle difficult, since I cannot make assumptions about what people have read.

This very well may be the genesis of that hoary old tradition, the split Player's Guide and GM Handbook, the assumption or realization that there are some gamers who want to read all the information they can, and some gamers who just want bits and pieces. The info-gluttons become the GMs and the rest become "players". Which... doesn't really do it for me. Being a self-declared info glutton, I would like to play every once in a while, and I don't want my only option to do so rely on my ability to find a bigger info-glutton than me. Not to mention there are a whole lot of info-gluttons out there who obsess on the info-glut and lose focus on the story and the game (I'm pretty sure Rifts is a good example of this happening to a game designer). Info-gluttons are not necessarily GMs, and moderate readers are not necessarily only "players".

So I said up in the first paragraph that you just needed the broad strokes of my game and I lied. It's also pertinent that I am trying to dissolve the distinction between the GM and the "players". In Full Light, Full Steam, everybody at the table is a player, GM included. The GM does not "create the adventure" nor is the GM "in charge of the story". These things are done together; the GM is responsible for implementing what the group as a whole designs. Consequently, the Character Generation section of the book is within the larger Campaign Generation chapter called The First Session. In the First Session, all the players get together and talk about what they want to play, what they want to see in the game, what their comfort zones are, et cetera. Then they make characters, together. Then they create elements of the setting, together. Then the GM prepares to run the game based on what the whole group has created and talked about.

Here is where I run into my problem, however. The players all sit down for the First Session, right? Envision that in your mind. Take on my role as author of the book that describes the game that they are about to talk about and play. Now ask yourself the question: who among the players has actually read the book? Supposedly they are going to talk about the game, right? Supposedly in order to talk about something you need to have some idea what you are talking about. Assuming that all players have read the entire book is... somewhat ludicrous. And yet they need to have a productive conversation. Herein lies the rub.

Really, this is what you need to know, setting-wise, to create a character and play the game: "It's 1890 or so, Victorian-era humanity has colonized the inner solar system using etherships. There are ancient mystical Martian and primitive Venerian aliens, and the greatest human nations, the Solar Powers, are all rivals for the most profitable colonies. You're going to play British sailors." From there, anyone who has ever gamed can have a profitable conversation about the game they'd like to play in that setting. The only thing is, they'd be dragging in all of their assumptions from prior games, primarily that the GM is going to create some big adventure for them to knock about in. Which just isn't the case. The missing pieces about how Full Light, Full Steam is supposed to play are far more complicated, tied in with the game mechanics and social contract issues and... yeah, complex. The broad strokes of it are possible to lay out, but the devil is in the details and the writer and editor in me screams, "support with details!".

Perhaps the solution is to begin the First Session with a monologue like this, delivered by the GM (who, it is assumed, has read the majority of the book): "I'd like to play this game. It's sort of different than usual roleplaying games, because the GM doesn't hoard all the power and the rest of the players get to do a lot of the things that the GM usually does. Everybody helps put together the setting and develop important NPCs and sometimes they even design or narrate parts of the adventure. It's 1890 or so, Victorian-era humanity has colonized the inner solar system using etherships. There are ancient mystical Martian and primitive Venerian aliens, and the greatest human nations, the Solar Powers, are all rivals for the most profitable colonies. You're going to play British sailors." If the GM stands up and abdicates traditional GM power to start the session off, how does that affect the rest of the First Session? Is saying "everybody helps create the setting" and following it up with a summary of that setting going to encourage or discourage active participation? Will it inspire them to think about it in new ways, or will they immediately think that they're being offered a sham and all the power will remain in the GM's (and book's) hands?

The Book is not the Game. This is something that you have to tell yourself over and over and over as you write the Book that describes the Game. I am creating the Book. I am not creating the Game: that will be done by players, some of whom I will never meet. There will be Games created that I will never experience or even hear about. The Book isn't completely unnecessary -- well it is, technically speaking, but in practical terms it's convenient for players to have as a baseline, reference, and guideline. My influence on the Game is wholly indirect, like operating waldoes to build something on the moon. Or better yet, operating waldoes to direct moon-men via sign-language to build something of their own. The players -- some of them, at least -- will read the Book, follow the directions that they like, and play their Game. Perhaps it's hubris on my part, wanting to control their Game, but I want the Book to be more than a description of a setting and rules for rolling dice. It needs to be a description of a functional social construct which can create an enjoyable evening or two. The only question is how to ensure that that social construct will be created when not everyone is reading the blueprints.


At 4:31 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

This is a problem I've had to struggle with too, and not one I've got a satisfactory answer to. Some of my random thoughts, however, go like this:

1. If you're playing a game in which people more evenly share responsibility then they need to more evenly share responsibility -- including getting the info they need for the game down. This is the hardcore method, and it can work for running a game you've designed, but is shit in terms of marketing.

2. The variation that you talked about with the GM narrated start and then a move towards more diffused play. There is a pretty good example of how this can work in Capes Lite. (Capes, if you don't know, is a GMless supers game that happens to rock.) Check it out here, and how Tony deals with an issue similar to yours.

3. One up Capes and have a section at the front of the book, like 5 pages long at most so anyone can and will read it (or even as a .pdf that the GM can send or hand out a copy to each of the players), and have it talk about everything that's important to know is different than most games. Combining this with number 2 is probably a good idea. "Here is what we're going to do, now I'll tell you what we're going to do, now we're going to kind of do it while I tell you what will be different next time, then I tell you what we did, then we try doing it again until it works." Just like teaching 3rd grade.

4. Sell it to GMs. Odd as this is, being an inverse of the way most books get marketed these days (sell to as wide a base as possible) your game, and a lot of Forge nar games, probably do best when sold to the type of people who love to game and like to run but don't want to run everything every damn time. (This would be me, for example.) If you can get people to think of running the game as a way to GM without GMing, and play with some extra authority, you may be able to get people to try it.

5. Post this to the Forge, in the Indie Game's forum, because the people there know more about this than I do. Some of them have faced the exact same issues, and while some of them are tards many can be helpful.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

1) Yeah.
2) I'll check out that link when I get home.
3) Already have the introduction written, although it is written to readers who may have never gamed before, and the 'how it is differen't is (IIRC) a sidebar.
4) Interesting proposition. A lot of the content certainly came out of my frustrations with always GMing, so this may be spot-on. It also wouldn't be hard to market it both ways at the same time: GMs, do less work! Players, have more power!
5) At some point while I wasn't looking, became more sensible than the Forge. This saddens me, and makes me afraid of the Forge forums, now.

At 7:42 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

(After Having Read Capes Lite)

Amusing -- and no doubt a highly effective little Lite Rules thing, with the step-by-step method that forces the first-time reader to imagine the tabletop scenario and thus teach himself the system inadvertently. The language is necessarily casual, given the format and, I suspect, the tone of the game as a whole. Do you know if the full version (Capes Heavy?) has the same or similar, or some other approach? It is, at least, food for thought.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Sorry dude, I lost track of this post. Is there a way to track it when people reply to blogs other than your own?

Anyway, Capes Heavy is actually (IMO) not as good at introducing the game. After getting it I actually printed Capes Lite so that I could get the game myself, and then help others get it.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

The lock-n-whatever character sheet things have some intriguing bits not explained in Capes Lite....

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Oh yea, the lock sheets are explained fully in the full game.

I also think they're the kind of thing that's great for getting board and card gamers into the game, giving them physical fiddly bits to mess around with is very cool.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

P.S. This blog is currently linked to from my blog. I don't think I've got enough dedicated readers that people will be coming in droves or anything, but a few might pop in from there.

Let me know if you want to keep this place dark and I'll take down the link.


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