Friday, December 4, 2009

Playing at Starbucks

I'll come back to the dice next week, but it's Friday, so I'll swap it up a little.

Malcolm Sheppard had a good post about next generation RPGs and the role of technology. I don't agree with it all, but it's an interesting read, and it came up when I was thinking about something that is almost the polar opposite, but which (as often happens with opposites) reflects on some of the same issues.

I was wondering to myself what the ideal game would be to play at Starbucks. It's a very specific criteria, so let me elaborate on it. Obviously, you could play any game you like at Starbucks, there are tables and everything, but all of the books and papers and other material that accompanies most games would seem powerfully out of place. The aesthetic of the place (to say nothing of noise and space concerns) calls for a certain sparseness rather than the scatter of papers and the clatter of dice.

Certainly, you could just use a minimalistic game, like Risus or PDQ. Since you wouldn't need a rulebook, and character sheets can be as small as an index card, you can get by with very little in the way of supplies. That works, sure, but I found myself wondering if it could go a little deeper. Pencil, paper and dice are well and good, but what can we do without them? What can we do with something purely tactile?[1]

The answer is "A lot", but it depends on the group. I've got many years of the Amber DRPG under my belt, enough so that I'm very comfortable with going diceless with a heavy dose of GM fiat. Within that sort of framework, you could build a powerful and dynamic game with little more than a deck of cards.

This lead to a bunch of design thoughts, some of which might see the light of day eventually, but it also called into question how I was thinking about games. I was focusing on the social element, and also on certain ideas of play that are intensely portable. That portability provides an interesting point of comparison for me between games as we think of them and more established games, like chess. Not in terms of how they're played, but in terms of our production model.

Consider chess's entry point. The rules are a little complex, but can be learned well enough that no rulebook is kept on hand. You can get all the supplies you need for a buck, but you can just as easily get those same supplies for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The game exists as an idea, and the industry and play surrounds and supports that idea.

In contrast, RPGs have something of a vicious ecosystem, where there is an idea, but lots of people are looking to carve off their own piece and lay claim to it. There are precious few products that exist to support the idea as a whole (mostly a handful of GMing advice books).

This is not a criticism - Chess is a single game, albeit one with a rich history, and there's no reason to expect any RPG to occupy a similar niche at this point in time. But I think this gets very interesting when you think about some of Malcolm's points, and look at the progress of technology. Technology is going to change RPGS, possibly quite drastically, but that leaves bare the question of what technology can't or won't change.

This really seems to cast bare the division in games about the role of the GM. A lot of games move to minimize the role, usually in response to abuses at the hands of bad GMs in the past. Others do it to take work off the GM's hands. One way or another, these rules are the ones that I suspect will take most strongly to automation, and at that point it will be impossible not to start talking and thinking about the actual art of GMing.

This is an uncomfortable topic. Bring up the point that a good GM can make a crappy game fun, and watch how quickly the howling begins. Talk about GMs taking ownership of the rules and bending them to suit their table, and prepare for offended looks. Gamers, as a sub-tribe of geeks, have a strong egalitarian streak, and we're not always comfortable with the idea that some GMs are better than others[2] and that keeps us from talking about why that is so, and what influences it besides natural talent.

It's a conversation that I think people have always had personally, but it dies on the Internet. But as technology marches on, there may be no way to escape it.[3]

I'm pretty psyched for that.

1- On some primal, emotional level I would love to play an RPG someday where i can get the same pure joy out of handling well crafted components that you can get from a well made chess set or dominoes.

2 - In the abstract at least. Our GMs are obviously excellent, and we all have stories of crappy GMs we've dealt with.

3 - Before we get there, we'll probably have a movement where setting design is as exalted as system design currently is. It will focus on how setting design can organically drive play, and it will take many lessons from MMOs.


  1. RE: card-based: keep in mind Whimsy Cards, Marvel SAGA, and my own Imago Deck for Dead Inside.

    Did I ever show you the twisted (half-good/half-bad) Whimsy Deck that my friend Scott Kane came up with back in college?

  2. You haven't, but rest assured that yes, oh yes, I most certainly keep such things in mind.

  3. You can play Secrets and Lies with just beads and the draft deck.

    I am intrigued by play only with a deck of regular playing cards.

    How about a themed deck, like that Iraqi Most Wanted deck?


  4. A good GM can make any game fun. Just as a bad GM can spoil any game. Often the difference is one that follows the rules exactly versus one that uses common sense and makes fair (not necessarily impartial) decisions.

    My ideal game has a simple, universal resolution system that is easily understood and universally used – so that the players know what a good result is and what a bad result is. Character creation should give the player an idea of who their character is and what they can reasonably do, and the world in which they exist. Apart from that, the rest of the rules are generally pretty ephemeral. A good GM will use common sense. A poor one will refer back to look for the specific rules.

    Whatever is chosen, I find it best if the game system supports the setting being played. Generic products just don't really work.

    One resolution system that used no aids which I was quite amused with was when Robin Laws ran a tribal thing at Ropecon for the con organisers. This was before the con, so everything was pretty busy. In order to do something
    the active players had to convince the bystanders, who represents the spirits of forest and stone, that it was appropriate that they succeed. Based on the depth of their veneration, of course.

    The only times when you really need consistency and must hew to the rules as written (apart from when playtesting), is when you are running a competitive tournament where several teams of players go through the same module and are scored appropriately. Even then, groups will perform differently for different gamemasters, and one of the tasks for the module designers is to try and get all the gamemasters running the modules at least handling matters similarly. [It's frustrating but fun running this sort of tournament.]

    As long as all the participants are on the same page as to how the game should be played and have an idea of the setting, everything works.

    Of course, in Starbucks you might even get away with a resolution system based on the coffees that people order. And yes, it would definitely be in the spirit of the resolution system to allow players to purchase an appropriate beverage in order to succeed at a vital task. Although they would then have to drink it. [Hmmmm. Sounds almost as fun as that game of Go I gave some friends with white and dark chocolate-coated coffee beans as the pieces – with the rule that you had to eat all prisoners immediately...]

    We have gotten away with using coloured candies as a resolution system. The manufacturers were even nice enough to tell us the theoretical distribution of the colours, so we didn't even need to do any sampling research. [You can even complicate the system by allowing a hand drawn from the bowl and allowing the players their choice as to which they eat. But then they may not have enough colour left to accomplish subsequent actions.]

    [Oh, and there are a number of variants of Chess. It's just one is the 1600 pound gorilla of the game – the rest are quaint historical artifacts. Your analogy may be better than you think.]

  5. GM Fiat bad!!!!!ONEONE

    And so forth. Yeah, I totally hear that. A lot of games really do seem to be designed as a kind of passive-aggressive response to bad D&D games of yesteryear and those tyrant Dungeon Masters who made their lives miserable.

  6. Hey Rob,

    I'm a big advocate of GM-less games, or at least a thoughtful approach to the distribution of authority. This is because I love the GM role and want to spread it around, not because of past damage or to ease anybody's burden. I'm all for burdens.

    While I agree that an awesome GM can make a crappy game fun, who has time for crappy games?

    My current obsession, Matthijs Holter's game Archipelago II, is a very good public game - minimal components, engaging and fun, sort of relaxed.

  7. For the longest time I never understood why there wasn't any attention to improving GMing in the hobby. Like, I'm a GM, I want to get better, so how? Can I go to a con for GMs where we share our craft? Can I get notes from an experienced GM who will mentor me in some way? No, all we have are usually pretty crappy pieces of GM advice that more talk about what the author thinks is good GMing than how to tell what your group thinks.

    Then it occurred to me: bad GMs are good for the industry. Long-running games with stable groups are bad for game companies that rely on dissatisfied people running back to the store to buy the book that this time, this book will fix their game forever.


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