Monday, November 19, 2007

Preparation Hell

I admit it. I prefer rules-light systems, and apparently I'm not alone. Most narrative games seem to lean towards simpler, more streamlined rules.

There are several obvious explanations for this. Pragmatically, small development teams have an easier time writing, editing and testing simple rules, and narrative games are almost exclusively small shop productions.

More significantly, complex rules tend to reward players who can master the system. The players, in an almost pavlovian reaction, will rise to this challenge and manipulate the rules to their advantage. This creates a feedback loop that inevitably drives the game towards tactical play. Unfortunately, this also tends to distract from the story.

The concept is simple: if you're designing a story-focused game, the game should reward story focused play. Most game designers recognize this, at least subconsciously, and they tend to shy away from rules-heavy mechanics.

But I think there is an even more important reason to avoid complex rules. Complex rules typically place a heavy burden on the GM. The more complex the rules, the more preparation you must do. Before the characters can challenge the Ogre Chieftain to a game of Brokk'Tak, you need to gen up the ogre's stats. If you want to have a mad chase across rooftops, then you need to look up the rules for moving across difficult terrain, balancing, jumping and falling (and probably other things as well). You probably want to take notes.

This creates three problems. First, if the GM invest time in creating a scene, he is more likely to force the scene down the players' throats--railroading them if necessary. Second, as a GM you never remember to pre-generate everything you need. Even if the scene goes exactly as planned, sooner or later you will find yourself digging through a rule book (or just making shit up). Finally, if the characters go off-script, the GM often has real trouble improvising.

Again, the GM should not create the story. He does not write the plot, then merely let the players experience it as they go along. No, the plot should evolve naturally at the table. It should be a collaborative effort between the players and the GM. For this to work, the system must not merely let the GM improvise, but actively encourage improvisation.

As a GM, I want to introduce NPCs at a drop of the hat. If the characters attack my social-skill-statted courtier, I need to keep the scene rolling without batting an eye. I need a system that lets me come up with reasonable difficulty numbers and modifiers without resorting to charts, tables or high school math.

Sure, some rules-heavy games try to help out. Many provide character templates, allowing the GM to more-easily improvise--provided he stays within the scope of those templates. Others use simplified NPCs.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer et. al. take abstract NPCs to the extreme. Almost all the crunchy rules are kept firmly on the player's side. The GM never even touches the dice. When a player tries to stake a vamp, the player rolls against the vamp's defense number. Likewise, when the vamp tries to bite a piece out of someone, the player makes a defense roll against the vamp's attack score. All things considered, this is a pragmatic compromise. After all, the players have less to worry about, giving them more time and energy to focus on rules. Indeed, managing the rules may help fill some of the downtime while others are in the spotlight.

But what should a Story-hungry GM do when he's stuck in a rules-heavy game?

As I've mentioned before, I want to like White Wolf's games. I have many fond memories of old WOD. Whenever I pick up one of the new books, I'm pleasantly surprised. The back stories are intriguing, and the systems seem to encourage interesting characters. Most importantly (to me), I can always find players for a White Wolf game. Sadly, it's often hard to convince people to try indie games.

So, I want to like White Wolf, but--damn--those games have a lot of rules!

Want to know a secret? Mostly, I just fake it. My NPCs succeed or fail based more on the dramatic necessity of the scene, than on the actual rolls. I don't like it, but it's true. Shhhh. Don't tell my players! I do it for the story, but I always feel guilty. I know I'm breaking a social contract with my players. After all, they expect the world's physics to operate as advertised.

But, really, what choice do I have?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed. Well said.

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the general thrust of this, but I would suggest that even in a crunch system you tell your players to wait while you do the math. If you're trying to get them to try other games, then it would create incentive. If they complain it takes too long, suggest a game with simplier rules, and explain why it takes so long to do it right with the current rules. Maybe then the'll see your point and try new stuff? Anyway, it's worth a try, I suspect.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Thanks for the comments.

Your suggestion might work, but I suspect most of the people I play with have a higher pain tolerance than I do in this regard.

There seems to be a weird chicken-and-egg problem here. If someone is exposed to narrative games, and they have a predisposition for these games, they realize that their previous gaming experience was missing something, and they are willing to explore new, independent games in the hopes that they will fill this newly discovered need.

If you haven't been exposed to indie games, they tend to develop a vague feeling of discontent with their current games, but they are more likely to quit the hobby, than to spontaneously pick up an indie game on their own. We have to somehow convince them to give indie games a try, in the hopes that it will resonate with them.

And, of course, a hefty chunk of the gaming population is happy with their gaming experiences as they currently stand. They have no reason to try anything new.


11:51 PM  
Blogger Unquietsoul said...

I have two points in response to this:

1) For many people (player and GM) your 'faking it for dramatic purposes and deciding success based off where you think the drama demands it to go' would be considered a violation of the social contract of the game. Many players want the GM/Narrator to follow the rules as much as they have to. Otherwise there is no reason for them not to fake it as well, and in the end you have stripped away all the aspects of 'game' from the experience and you've announced yourself not arbitrator but dictator. If you are discovered you may find yourself no better off than the Wizard of OZ.

2) Crunchy mechanics are not the only cause of large amounts of preparation. I'm working right now on a preparation for a Napoleonic Conspiracy game, where the players will belong to a conspiracy group who is trying to prevent Napoleon from becoming Emperor during the 'year of peace (1802)'. The mechanics are not my big preparation headache, it's the historical research on the various important people around Napoleon, in favor or opposing him, the other conspiracies ongoing that may help or hinder their plans and the NPCs in general. Trying to create player handouts of what they know and who they know is far more complex than the system mechanics stuff. The more detailed the setting (and deep the story potential) the more preparation there is.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Unquietsoul said...

Indie Games does not necessarily equal narrative games. Indie is, by definition, a method of production and distribution, not a style. You can mechanics crunchy indies just as easily as you can have narrative style or low mechanics "commercial" games distributed and published in a non-indie fashion (The first low mechanic games I saw were all commercial things like Atlas Games 'Over The Edge" and Avalon Hill's "Tales Of The Floating Vagabond".

11:03 AM  
Blogger Rich said...


Point # 1) You are absolutely correct. I think I even mentioned this in the article. If not, I definitely talked about it in a previous essay.

I'm not particularly happy, nor proud of the fact. But I am willing to be honest about it.

I'd even go further to say that unilaterally drifting a game is also a breach of the social contact. For example, last time I looked at D&D rules, they were clearly designed to be played on a grid map with miniatures. If you try to abstract away the movement (a very common thing to do in many gaming groups), you are breaking the social contract. Someone may have made a character expecting those rules to be followed as written.

That's one reason why I don't like rules-heavy systems. You're never going to use all the rules correctly. And someone will always feel shorted.

Point # 2) Again true. Obviously, there are other sources of necessary preparation. But that doesn't mean we should excuse system-driven preparation requirements. I mean, that's a little like saying since I might get lung cancer from air pollution anyway, I may as well start smoking.

Besides, when you decide to run a historical campaign, you know (or should know) that it's going to require research.

And I also think research is profoundly different from the system-required preparations I mentioned above. Most world building and setting research is done before the campaign even starts. And the information is used throughout the entire game. The cool bits of information you unearthed can be sprinkled throughout the story wherever they seem appropriate.

Whereas, system required preparation is usually focused on creating specific scenes or encounters. Once you spend time creating the scene, you will need to make sure that scene happens, or all your effort will be wasted.

System-required preparation encourages railroading of players in a way that world-building research never does.

Finally, your second post is also technically true. And, yes. Once Upon a Time, the major RPG publishers produced a wider variety of products, including a number of narrative games. Heck, back when "Over the Edge" and "Tales of the Floating Vagabond" where first published, the indie market (as we now know it) did not exist.

However, given the current state of the industry, I think I can be excused for my slightly sloppy use of language. Narrative games are almost exclusively indie products. And, the indie market is largely dominated by narrative games. It can be argued that the terms are nearly synonymous these days.

I also disagree, you can't have a mechanically crunchy game "just as easily" produced by an indie game developer. Good crunchy mechanics require a great deal of testing. An indie developer simply does not have the same resources as a big publisher, so it's harder to get the same level of testing.

Not impossible, and most indie publishers do a good job testing their products. But, I suspect this is one of the reasons why narrative games (with their easier-to-test mechanics) have done so well in the indie scene.

This also raises a question, what is an "indie game"? Many of the smaller game companies are one- or two-person shops. Are they indie games? Where do we draw the line?

Personally, I tend to lump small publishers in with the print-on-demand, working-out-of-my-parents'-basement indies. Your milage may vary.

9:31 PM  

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