So I was trying today to distill what I want from a role-playing game in the hopes that by digging down to really basic principles I could get a better understanding for what the rules need to do to suit my needs. This is a little thought-on-the-fly and a little planned, so bear with me as I both derive and discover this.
One of the things I most want to experience while playing (and deliver if I’m running a game) is awe. I want there to be something that makes you gasp even if it’s just in your head. Now this seems to be something that is in principle in the hands of the ref or the setting material. Let’s note that:
- delivered by the ref
- delivered by the setting material
But what is it that delivers awe? My gut instinct is that it has to do with outrageous magnitude. The impossibly huge inspires awe. Niven’s Ringworld inspires awe, for example. In this novel Niven posits a place where at the orbital radius of a world like earth is not a planet but rather a ring surrounds the sun at that distance. It contains millions of worlds of space. It’s terrifyingly huge and the size of it is apparent from inside it, where the world forms an arch over your head. Even Iain Banks’ comparatively small orbitals, space stations that contain only a few planets worth of surface area, are big enough to make you draw a breath. Things that are too big to contain in your head give you inexpensive awe.
Age gives you awe. Things that are immensely old, like the sleeping hegemonic swarm in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep or even Pham Nuwen himself in Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky (and fractionally in ‘Deep too) inspire awe. The fact that Pham is a “normal” human who has spent a lot of time at relativistic speeds means he’s physically not all that old but he’s seen tens or even hundreds of thousands of years pass on the worlds he’s visited.
I have in my notes that improbability gives you awe but now I don’t think that’s right. Or maybe it’s another layer deeper — the really huge is partially awe-creating because it’s improbable. Same with the really old. It doesn’t have to actually be improbable, it just have to seem like it. So since I can’t think of any independent examples of this let’s throw it away. Maybe you have some insight.
Power also gives you awe but power is a tricky one, especially in games. First it’s kind of cheap and leads to escalating power struggles that swiftly become ridiculous. I used to use this a lot but it’s a dangerous game. D&D nicely codifies it with levels, handing out the toys in a regulated manner and escalating the opposition in order to create awe. But your power is mostly what’s awesome since everything else is scaling to your needs — it’s weirdly awesome to you the player, though for your character it might be commonplace. I guess my real issue with power as an awe-source is the way the whole story has to cope with it by trivializing things that are too far below the power scale — which frequently leaves things behind that I don’t want to lose. What I mean is, if you’re a 20th level wizard fighting giant astral demon fetuses (a real monster in D&D 3e, the last revision I really played out) then the every day conflicts of city life become eroded in importance. Zero level barkeeps pretty much to whatever you tell them to do. Power as a knob to turn is transformative: it changes the whole game. It’s useful for awe but it’s a spice you want to be very careful with. It changes the whole dish.
I want things to be difficult in my game. One of the songs that used to really inspire me to craft situations in games when I was a kid was Yes’ song South Side of the Sky from Fragile. Look at these lyrics:
Move forward was my friend's only cry
In deeper to somewhere we could lie
And rest for the the day with cold in the way
Were we ever colder on that day
A million miles away
It seemed from all eternity
Winter winds, desperately moving forwards hoping for safety, enduring the impossible. This is something that games generally do really badly. I would love to find a game that made you feel this kind of desperation without simply ticking off hit points. I want a narrative solution that I feel in my guts. This is a bit of a grail for me; I don’t have a solution. I think I caught a piece of it with the RESCUE method in The King Machine just because it makes the scenario happen where people need to be saved, and makes it immediate and risky. I think that’s a space I want to explore more. I think RESCUE is a flash of genius even if I say so myself and I regret removing it from the current Diaspora work.
It’s funny that this one has been so boiled away in gaming, abstracting it to, say, how many hit points you have left. Or whether you make a saving throw. It’s essential if not the whole point of most fiction. It’s usually replaced with endless fights. That doesn’t interest me as a solution though I get why it is: it’s an easy replacement. But it’s far too specific for my taste. Almost nothing in real life is a fist fight. And only slightly more is even credibly analogous to one. A fight is a very small and unusual case of the superset of hardship.
Hardship has to be delivered by the ref and by the mechanism I think.
- delivered by the ref
- delivered by mechanism
We need a purpose. As the actor famously demands, “What’s my motivation?!” As a player I am not content to be handed missions; this is too mechanical now and I always imagine a giant yellow exclamation point over and NPC’s head. It can be a mission, but not in a sprawling sandbox game. A game that’s about missions, that uses the mission as an episodic structure to tell tales, well I am onboard for that. That’s Hollowpoint. And it’s an elegant but somewhat specific solution.
But where else can purpose come from? The mechanism can supply it as we’ve seen. The ref can supply it via NPCs. But real motivation, real purpose, is not actually in the ref’s hands. It’s in the players’ because they need to buy in. I think the first time I realized this was when I first read a copy of Burning Wheel. In this game character creation demands that each character have a few BELIEFS — statements about the things that will motivate the character to act (and mechanically will pay the player for doing so). If you have a belief like “Arthur is the true and righteous king of the land” then you are motivated to act on anything that threatens that. It sells itself.
The problem with doing it from any other angle is that the player needs to buy in, and that’s why it generally only works when it’s the core premise (you are secret agents on a mission and here’s your mission) or when everyone’s happy with a more contrived quest-giving landscape of NPCs. It’s got to come from the player, supported by mechanism (a way to declare your motivations) and an observant ref (pressing the buttons the player laid out clearly on the character sheet).
- delivered by the player
- supported by the mechanism
- supported by the ref
This is something I only recently realized how badly I want in a game. I want to feel for everyone. I want to care what happens in the world around me and not just to my character or my compatriots. Again, swinging back to The King Machine, this is why the SPILLOVER risk is important: it pushes the ref to threaten the well-being of innocents when player characters act, and therefore make a conscious decision about how much they care. It creates an active, mechanical opportunity to find compassion in play.
I think compassion is really important because it can be absent in games without anyone deliberately removing it. Back to our poor barkeep being pushed around by the 20th level wizard, we generally don’t care that she has a family to feed. These things are either beneath us or so far outside the scope of our motivations that we don’t address them since we have bigger fish (giant demon babies) to fry. But I want to care when I play. I want all of the people to have a potential story — not necessarily to tell it, but to be impacted in a way I am forced to feel.
I think compassion is very much a shared burden. The ref has to deliver it. The mechanism should support it in same way, giving it focus, making it an issue. And the players have to buy in — they have to care what happens to the barkeep.
- delivered by the ref
- supported by mechanism
- supported by the player