The most fascinating thing happened to me after a few years of playing World of Darkness. Over time, I began to hate combat. Like fire-in-the-soul, singing the world-ripper melody of vengeful dead gods level of hate. I took my katana and trenchcoat and just hung them up in my dingy undercity apartment, never to look at them again. I was hesitant to give it up at first, mystified as I was by this development, but my loathing grew stronger and purer with every minute we spent killing some asshole’s mooks.

After a time, I realized that there was a genre clash. When playing Mage, a game about transcendence and the malleability of reality itself, I found I was really just playing a super hero in a setting that was mechanically unfit for it. When playing Vampire, I had the same problem. The game’s fiction was laden with these cool ideas and highfalutin concepts, but somehow we spent hours just trying to hurt some guys with our katanas and Desert Eagles. Where was all that intellectual conflict? From what I’ve heard of a lot of WoD games, this is not uncommon. Part of this problem is rooted in a confusion within the source material—at no point in Mage: the Ascension are we told what Mages do with their time. The War is over, the Technocracy won by any meaningful definition of the word, and the spirit realm is basically off-limits. Ascension is not a goal that has a mechanic, or is even explicitly attainable. And if it was attainable, ἀρετή, the stat governing your Ascension, was utterly opaque, meant to be a kind of platonic-ideal-world understanding of the entire universe-as-a-whole that was impossible to play. Combine that with the still-extant threat of the Mage-Hunting Technocracy and you have a cocktail for aimless HITMark kill quests and zombie-survival-but-with-magic games.

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So in the Dragon Age computer/console games, you fight these endless hordes of faceless monsters called Darkspawn. The hero of the story must kill their leader in order to neutralize the giant horde of them that is threatening the ambiguously middle-ages european landscape. These monsters are the giant threat that the hero must deal with, but ultimately the hero’s victory over the Darkspawn is unsatisfying because the hero faces a foe that represents no moral quandary. Even the final boss, the Big Bad, is a mook! It is as faceless as its minions—despite being a fallen Elder God it offers no commentary, no insight whatsoever on the human or trans-human condition. It merely roars and directs its mindless masses. Luckily, I am finding that the sequel is much better about this, though certainly not perfect.

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I wanted to talk about a concept I’ve recently hit upon that I’m calling a mechanic’s “shape”. To do that I have to introduce a few prerequisite concepts, but first, a caveat. I don’t believe in a grand unified theory of game design. Instead, I take a view that’s closer described as “there are many facets to truth.” So, when I say that I need to define what I mean by mechanic in the first place, I’m not claiming to have a perfect, complete, or final definition of the term. I can only bring up the parts that are currently on my mind here.

To me, a game mechanic is a rule, strategy, behavior, or convention that governs some sort of activity or sub-activity in a game. It has a domain that it applies to—where it fits in the entire system of mechanics. A simple mechanic might be “when you hit someone with a weapon, you roll that weapon’s damage dice and inflict that many hit points of damage.” The mechanic tells you what its domain is or the activity that it applies to—in this case, hitting someone with a weapon. It also tells you what to do when that thing happens—roll damage and reduce hit points.

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We talk a lot on this blog about issues of balance. This is tied to fairness[1]. There’s a strong unspoken assumption in game design that, if you believe balance is a relevant category for your game, then your game should have it, should be balanced.

I’ve just been talking with Austin about why I’d rather play D&D 3.5 than D&D 4 if I’m looking to play a minis game, and in so doing, I had a realization. Two rogues with spears in a party, flanking at long reach? It’s great. It’s something hard to do with 4e. It’s something particular to the ways 3.5 is broken and imbalanced. And it’s part of why I would play 3.5 not just as a minis game, but as an actual role-playing game.

Role-playing games should be unfair, but they should be unfair in both directions.

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  1. See Rob Donoghue for more thoughts on that. []

Just a reminder: we’re not going to be posting as much until we get In a Dragon-Guarded Land out the door. We’re aiming for the first of April, but that release date may be a joke.

I’m a big fan of Bully Pulpit’s games. Lately, we here have been playing some Fiasco, and dissecting it a bit. It’s caused me to do some thinking about what a GM is and does. This is particularly timely for me, as I am trying to decide whether Et in Arcadia Ego needs to have a GM. Both of the other games we’re working on clearly do—In a Dragon-Guarded Land because someone needs to represent adversity and the temptation of evil, A Piece of Work because someone needs to represent the target of the heist. But Et in Arcadia Ego is a game with much more room for player-versus-player interactions, and may not have a role for a GM as such.

Some months ago, Robert Bohl started this interesting thread at Story Games that got me thinking about what I like to call GMderfuck, or GMderqueerness. He talked about breaking down the GM-ful/GM-less binary and instead talking about how GM-ly authority gets distributed[1]. I think a lot of games that are “GM-less” actually have done this. Let’s look at what are, to me, the classic examples of GMderqueer games: Polaris, Fiasco, and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach.

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  1. Ben Lehman recently commented on this subject, too. I think he’s right, authority is the question. Resolution systems are one place to put authority. []

It’s an ineffable quality. I think of it as traction, or grabbiness. It’s that quality that makes you just want to play something, and not just want to, but to know what you need to do in play. This character has to do this, to want this. This situation needs to explode in this fashion.

Imagine for a moment that your brain is a pseudo-random-number generator. Presented with a blank page, it will produce more or less the same results. A great way to spark creativity is to give yourself something other than the same blank white page to start with. A great way to stifle creativity is to start with something complete. You want some suggestive marks, but nothing excessive.

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The “Games are Conversation” point has been made many times, but here’s one more note in that symphony. I’ll be approaching it from an angle that presumes a discourse between a game designer and player.

The first exchange in this model occurs at character creation. Trad systems, at least the vast majority of them, create a very specific kind of mindset in players. The thought when making characters is almost always “how much can I get away with?”. You want a character who is maximally good at any cost. But right out of the door you have a mindset problem, where you have an antagonism between the players and the system. As players create characters, they feel they must “beat” the system by making a crazily effective character. Anyone who has played Shadowrun knows this feeling intimately. This can cause amusing problems if your system is complex enough to break, which is to say, if your system contains numbers. Though some games can beat this, it often comes at a steep cost. Take D&D 4E, where all class powers are some variation of “roll a die for damage, placement effect”. Fun if you put work into it, but incredibly bland as a base. Then look at the previous editions, and their impossibly powerful wizards.

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