Monday, September 05, 2005

Five Games

Under the Bed, Breaking the Ice, Death's Door, The Mountain Witch, and I'm going to include my own Polaris in the list if people don't object to me analyzing my own work.

These games all have something in common. Ken Hite, bless his old heart, universally calls them "almost a game, but not quite." He's wrong, of course. They are perhaps more like games -- by which I mean the ordinary sort of board, card, video and computer games -- than any role-playing game, ever.

These games have learned and studied and digested all the lessons of Dogs in the Vineyard, Sorcerer, My Life With Master, Primetime Adventures, Trollbabe, and Universalis. In that order, in my own case, although I think that each of the authors would order those games differently. It's a moot point.

All of these games have:

  1. The expectation that the game will be played to the fullest extent that the rules allow, and no further.
    1. The expectation that people will not be anti-social within the context of the rules. By which I do not mean not taking advantage of rules loopholes. These games have no rules loopholes.
    2. These games have no rules loopholes. (Possible exception: Polaris.)

  2. Incredibly focused design. These games do what they do very well, and don't care to do anything else.
    1. The central issue of each of the games is an incredibly important human issue: Childhood (Under the Bed), Romance (Breaking the Ice), Honor (The Mountain Witch), Death (Death's Door), and Duty and Disillusionment (Polaris).

  3. A definite and finite play period. Polaris has the longest of these at 20 hours or so. Breaking the Ice is the shortest at 1 1/2 hours.

    These three things are pretty much things that most people expect from normal games. Then, there are the other two.

  4. Strong scene framing.
    1. In all but The Mountain Witch, rotating scene framing.
    2. Strong Director Stance. In all but The Mountain Witch, no singular GM figure, and TMW has such strong Director Stance as to render ordinary GMing moot (players get to hide information from the GM, to pick one thing at random.)
    3. All players are expected to generate material for play, including conflicts (see also 4).

  5. All players are expected and required by the rules to bring intensely personal issues to the table. The absolutely strongest case here is Death's Door, where you have to write down things you want to do before you die. The weakest is Polaris, where you are required to participate in ritual but that's about it.

Furthermore, absolutely none of the above things is regarded as special within the game text. Nothing says "in this game, which is different from other role-playing games, we do ____" It just says "As long as you are not playing a scene, any player may start a scene for..." We, the designers of these games, have played enough of the other games that none of this is important anymore. Of course you can have a game that does these things. I think it is because of this that a lot of folks, like Ken Hite, are going to call these "not quite games." The rules aren't any further from a role-playing game than in the previous texts, but since we don't apologize for it, we're not really quite right.

I had a conversation with Frank T about these games. He was doubting that any game could unseat Dogs in the Vineyard as a favorite game for him. I said:

"Look, man, you may very well be right. You know the way that Dogs in the Vineyard focuses play exactly on the problems of the town, and the players have to pass judgment on them? Well, it could be that judgment of sins is the most interesting thing for you. In which case: Yes, none of these games will unseat Dogs as your favorite game.

"But if you're interesting in Childhood, or Romance, or Death, or Honor, or Duty, then you might want to check out these games. Because you know the way that Dogs works really well to focus on its single point? These games all do that exact same thing, but for a different point."

In other words, Dogs is a good game. These are all also good games. And they are all, also, different games. We aren't good just by hitting the same note over and over again.

Different and good. That can only mean one thing. We've done it, guys and girls. We've created a set of techniques which allow us to consistently and repeatedly make good games, without simply copying the work of a genius. We have taken RPG design and turned it into an honest-to-goodness craft.

I'm not saying that there's no need for further experimentation. Clearly, we will add new techniques to our set in the future, and I'm totally into trying to figure out what those are. What I'm saying is that we're not fumbling in the dark anymore. Anyone who wants to, who cares to listen and the learn, can design a good RPG.

Which means that these five are just the beginning of an explosion. It'll be a wild ride. I'm looking forward to it.