We just played through Leverage and it has me thinking a lot about a lot of different pieces. On balance, we had a ton of fun with it, even with only a passing familiarity with the rules. I’m sure our second play through will be smoother.

As a license-based game, the system captures the feel of the original show amazingly well. You don’t play the original team; instead there’s a very compelling system of generating a few details of your character and having the rest revealed through your first job. I’ve not really thought deeply about the many ways to construct character creation rules, so this was fun to play with. Many of the bits left undefined are textual descriptors, which can be challenging to define without having played the character (as we’ve found with In a Dragon-Guarded Land). Defining them slightly later helps provide inspiration.

Nominally, the rules suggest that these details should be provided via flashback scenes, which is very much in the show’s style. However, we struggled to break out of our pre-conceptions about play needing to be done linearly. A lot of this game’s challenge lies in figuring out what to focus on and what to gloss over and fill in later with a flashback. The thing that’s most interesting about flashbacks in this game is that those scenes can be used for retroactive narrative positioning with no other mechanical effect. In theory, that’s a tool that could be used in any game.

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People come and go. Sometimes, someone who starts with the best of intentions can’t make it past the first session of an ongoing game due to any of the various slings and arrows of life. Sometimes, a friend is in from out of town for the weekend, and you want them to join.

Some games have beautiful design, but at the cost of being rigid in the face of these considerations: Smallville, for example, doesn’t handle people coming and going very well. Nor does Polaris. Both of these are beautiful games, and if you can get a reliable group, are, I imagine, fantastic.

I want to design games that can have the best of both worlds—the cohesion of a storyline where the same characters reliably recur, and the tolerance for real-world exigencies of games that don’t rely on people showing up all the time. One way to do this is to break the character-monogamy attitude. This leads to another problem, at least potentially: a character played by a rotating band of folks can be incoherent, with no consistent characterization or motivation.

So, are there other ways to do this? I hope so.

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Back to grinding the “mechanics are important” axe! I want to talk about a concept that comes from sociology—marked traits—and how it applies to role-playing games.

Certain RPGs hold a privileged status when compared to smaller production games. D&D, and to some extent the World of Darkness, are two such games. These systems are considered “normal” from a mechanical view. Their traits are unmarked while other games are noted for the ways in which they differ from this status quo.

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Human Heart

A heart, courtesy of thevintagecollective on Flickr.

Here’s an idea that I’ve been hashing out with my friends Alex and Amir, neither of whom have enough internet presence to link to, sadly.

Looking at games like Mouse Guard and Dread, we started thinking about limited resources, particularly resources-for-action, and refresh mechanics. Let me unpack that a bit. Both games very nicely constrain action: in Mouse Guard, there are two phases to play, and in one, the Players’ Turn, you can only act n times, where n increases by taking more badness during the GM‘s turn. In Dread, every action brings the group closer to a horrible death by making the Jenga tower more precarious, but every horrible death resets the tower, partially.

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This week, Rob Donoghue has been posting a compare-and-contrast about video games and tabletop games. On Tuesday, he said something that’s been brewing in my head for a bit.

The key point from that post, for my purposes, is that video games are very tolerant of failure—there’s almost no cost for failing, just the time invested in the failed attempt, because you can keep trying until you get it right. (I hope I’ve done his point justice, anyway.)

That didn’t sit right with me. Not because I don’t think he’s right—I do. That is a property of video games. But I think it’s purely a flaw.

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Recently we circulated among ourselves a very well-written article by Robert Schwalb about the frustration surrounding skill systems, particularly in D&D. I recommend the article, but want to talk about an idea that’s slightly tangental—target fixation.

Target fixation is the concept of becoming so focused on something that one excludes everything else, to the detriment of achieving the goal one set out to do. Here, it expresses itself as an obsession with the mechanics of a game, as if they were the only way to achieve anything. As Schwalb points out, if everything is a skill check, then story is quickly abandoned in favor of a series of sequential skill checks. Nothing in a game should be allowed to dominate play to that extent.

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A heroine scans the horizon, searching for the army that is pursuing her and her friends. Failing her Spot check, she does not see them in the darkness of night. A hero attempts to convince a king of his party’s noble goals, but botches his Etiquette roll. While battling a nefarious deathknight, a whole group of adventurers is wiped out.

Failure is common feature of RPGs. Most RPGs include the option of failure (and those that do not often provide other avenues for expressing similar results.) The potential for failure creates investment in the story being told. But not all failure is the same, and the way failure is treated changes the feel of the game.

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When a character dies, it can be a real buzzkill in a lot of games. Some games make this not so—in Fiasco, you can continue to exert influence over the story, in the name of a dead character, just as easily as a live one. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you don’t die unless you’ve had a dramatic death scene, and figured that the conflict was worth staking your life on. But in many other games? Death can happen all too easily, once anything comes to blows.

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Earlier, I talked about how boundaries figured into Being Awesome, and into Exalted. After some thought, I realized that there was a lot going on with this idea of boundaries in RPGs.

Boundaries do two things simultaneously. They limit the game from the creative infinite, and create an identity for the game that is unique to it. Setting makes up some of the game’s boundaries, but in play it is often the case that rules do most of the grunt work. But this makes sense because all games are defined by rules. Without rules you do not have a game, you have Calvin Ball. Rules define a simply incredible volume of a game by their very presence, though a full discussion of how and why “System Matters” is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say, rules define a great deal about the tone of a game, and how it’s played.

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The wonderful Joshua A.C. Newman recently tweeted this:

In my Human Contact backer’s survey, the players who said they played D&D said, “D&D, of course”. All three of 248.

This raises an interesting point. All three of us here at Transneptune began gaming with D&D. A lot of what we do exists in reaction to this, whether we want to admit it or not. A lot of our idea of what pathological gaming is and can be, and what good gaming is and can be, stems from this common ground we have.

But I think that the whole story-games movement is opening up the field to many people who might never have played RPGs precisely because they weren’t interested in D&D. The game is undeniably still popular, but the audience for games where you sit around a table with friends and make up a story with the aid of some dice seems to be widening.

So what, then, is the purpose of our D&D reactionism? Well, it certainly provides a common language and a common set of experiences among the three of us. But let me turn that question outward for a moment, and ask what you, our phantasmal readers, have found as the recurring touchstones of this genre? What benefit do you see to having a common set of references, and how common do you think D&D really is?

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