Recently, I joined an Exalted game a friend of mine was running. After nearly a year of indie-only play, I came to the game with fresh eyes. I was surprised once I got into it, though, at my comparative lack of frustration at the long list of obtuse rules. Don’t get me wrong, many rules in Exalted make me want to set the world on fire. But I didn’t just slam the book down and back out of the game. Instead I got roped into this wonderlandian rabbit hole of Exalted character generation. I wondered why it hooked me so much when I knew that ultimately, Exalted just isn’t my schtick. It got me thinking about pre-play in general, and what keeps people attached to crunch and rules-heavy games like Exalted or D&D.

And then it hit me. At no other point in these more traditional games do you make nearly as many decisions as you do when making a character. The joy, the real good stuff, is in that early sweep of decision-making. You get to define a person, optimize them, stylize them, dress them, power them, engineer them for the moments of badassery you want them to have. There’s a relevant quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail here:

“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”

That quote is a little cynical, I think, to apply here wholesale. But there’s a pattern lurking behind it that applies. Once play begins, that flurry of character-related decisions is totally forgotten. As is most of the fun. You go into the dungeon. You kill orcs. You take their stuff. Story happens at you sometimes. Some GMs are better about this than others, but the majority of traditional games don’t give much space for player authority, which is where all the blood and plot and drama worth anything happens. And you’ll notice this odd effect when you give experienced D&D players more player-authority choices to make in-game: they totally deer-in-headlights on you.

So what’s up with that? They know when they want to activate a feat, what stat they want when they level, what prestige class they’ll take and when. But ask them to frame a scene, and nothing! So it’s clear that there are two kinds of choices going on in these game. My best guess is that the difference has to do with the information available to a player. When you make character generation choices, you’re acting with complete information. Every choice you make has an outcome you know and understand. When you make a decision in-play, that outcome is not known. It could help you, it could massively hurt you, it could do something totally unexpected. And the real threat behind that incomplete information is the possibility of being wrong.  There are no “wrong” decisions in pre-play, but people think that there are “wrong” ones in actual role-play. So even when you get players who know their exact build down the points, you might not have the action-loving tragic-hero player you secretly want, because they’re afraid to make the wrong choice.

In the future, I’d love to make a game that was friendly to new players, or to ones unused to making rash decisions in-play. What’s the best way to mitigate that fear of being wrong, I wonder?

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  • Austin,

    I don’t like writing entire blog posts in your comments section, but you’ve got me thinkin’…

    Those games do have wrong decisions in pre-play, though. Often tons of them. For instance: picking a crappy feat (e.g. Toughness in D&D3, by design).

    The thing you said about those decisions existing in a very structured space still rings true, though. But lots of “indie” designs try to add more structure to the the in-play dramatic storytelling decisions, and many players actually balk at that. While it may be fair to say that some do it because they actually just want to avoid the decisions altogether, I don’t think that’s true for all of them. Certainly one reason I choose Burning Wheel over Mouse Guard is that I didn’t want to do structured scenes, even though I rather objectively suck at scenes and may MG’s approach could rein that in a bit.

    When the crunchy-bits character generation is working right, it’s not just a pre-play activity. Sure, you might design the character during pre-play, but then you get to share all that stuff you’ve done. Like, okay, in Magic (I’ve been playing a lot of it recently, so all my game design stuff is filtered through that lens right now), I have lots of fun because I build a deck and then I get to show off my idea to people, and my preferred method of showing off my creations is *playing the game with other people*. When a “trad” game is working well, that’s where all the pre-play stuff builds towards as well: a fun, productive, and highly interactive sharing during the session.

    MTG also has a format called “draft”, wherein the deck-building is done at the beginning of play, with players drawing from a shared card pool. I like it a lot less. Some of the decks I’ve drafted have been fun in the moment (and some have been really boring — usually the result of getting fixated on a formula), but I’ve never wanted to, like, play any of them afterward. They’ve all felt disposable. I think it’s because there’s no vision and no polish to them. There’s just less to share, in most ways.

    Where is this going? Well, the idea that no-prep improvised decisions are more fun (and more interactive) than pre-play decisions has become an “indie” truism of sorts. I used to agree, but now my own experiences are chipping away at that. It’s true based on a narrow vision of pre-play decisions as substitutes for in-play decisions; I think pre-play decisions can be more than that, though. In the games I find myself most drawn to, the pre-play component builds a foundation that enhances the actual experience of playing the game. Done right — and what exactly is required to get this out of a design is beyond me at this point — it’s imbuing the game with a depth and longevity that’s missing from pure in-the-moment play.

    — Alex

    • OK, I think Austin has to reply to many points in this, but one thing I want to say is that pre-play decisions risk being too complete to let other people in. This is something I’m gonna be talking about in an upcoming post on setting, so this is hitting close to my current thoughts. You need to leave room for other people to contribute, or at least interact, or they won’t care.

      • Very true, Kit. I think it’s like “saying too little” vs. “saying too much”. For my tastes, “trad” games strike a balance in the wrong way — generally there’s an excess of onerous / distracting pre-play and a dearth of foundation-building pre-play activity.

        My gripes about D&D3, your (Kit’s) gripes about Exalted… they’re sorta half about the game doing too much and half about them doing *the wrong thing altogether*.

        But lots of indie designs don’t, well, do enough. There are games that I’ve bought and found interesting and inspiring, but there wasn’t enough structure — and, yes, honestly, *hand-holding* — there to get me to the point that I could play them productively.

        For instance — and this is an example about techniques, not specific games, — I do consider most character-background stuff to be counter-productive. But I can’t start the game cold and see what characterization develops in play. When I do that, I just end up with a mishmash of conflicting reactions that I don’t find very fun to play. I need at least a personality archetype of some sort, plus a few details to hang onto. And that stuff needs to churn in my head a while before I can really crystallize it well enough to play it.

        P.S. I hate my proxy.

        • Right! This is the biggest problem with Becoming Heroes, in my mind: it doesn’t help you make your character at all, in some senses. The arcs are great, but you still need to do a lot of work to make your traits.

          In Et in Arcadia Ego, I’m trying to give more support. I’ve been reading a bit about brainstorming techniques and trying to learn from that. I want systems that help you answer the question of “who am I playing?” and then let you play that, without fewer or more steps in there.

    • Anonymous

      You bring up a ton of interesting points, as usual. 

      “In the games I find myself most drawn to, the pre-play component builds a foundation that enhances the actual experience of playing the game.”

      This is exactly what I want with pre-play, and especially crunch, but never quite feel like I’m getting. A lot of my issue with crunch in trad games specifically is that there’s no play in the play. There’s too little feedback from the fiction into the mechanics, and you end up throwing stats at stats with some randomization thrown in and seeing who happens to shake out victorious. Even the allure of DnD character generation can’t blind me to the fact that I make no choices that meaningfully effect the game in that model, only more or less optimal ones. And this is where Exalted really shines for me. Stunting is a crude but preposterously effective mechanic that has ill-defined qualifications (it has to have “cool” fiction in varying degrees) but a concrete, crunchy effect. It has a more subtle effect, too – if it is cool, it can’t possibly be that wrong. It reduces play inhibitions! I am amazed by this. And further, when you stunt, you introduce new things into the fiction which are then as real as anything else in the fiction. This mini-world-building is immense fun, and lets you make a ton of decisions about the world around you, even if all you’re doing is fighting.

      Now what I wish is that there was “stunting” in character generation. Gotta find a way to make that happen. But crunch and pre-play give players, as you mention below, something to hold onto. Something they feel they can use, like a tool, upon the fiction. Traction. My thoughts on this effect are pretty nebulous right now, but you have me thinking about how I might design a more rules-heavy game that doesn’t get in your way too much, but helps build a good foundation for a great story. 

  • Stras

    Consider also that crunch is a different sort of appeal.  We’re conditioned in certain ways from a young age.  Do your homework well, get an A.  Crunch, and mechanical execution constitute more ‘game’ (in the gamist sense).  Success is a reward mechanism.  In storytelling, you can simply say you win, but to most people that’s an ’empty victory’.  By mechanically making a superior character, or beating difficult odds on a game board while following complex and challenging rules, this creates a sense of accomplishment that others can recognize.  In this case the challenge is to from very limiting and highly structured rules to pull out a unique and interesting character combination.

    As to your question, what if you reward mistakes and failures with a bolstering mechanic?  Ex: if you fail your skill or trait might go up (learning from mistakes).  Or perhaps you get a bennie point you can use to help you resolve the situation or bolster someone elses attempts to do so later.

    • Anonymous

      Very interesting point. There is a necessary sense of overcoming obstacles in any game, and I guess I feel like the rules themselves should never be those obstacles. 

      In response to your response, that kind of thing has been done very well by a variety of brilliant people. Checks in Mouse Guard, certain very clever DnD hacks. But I wonder also if you could reward that feeling you get when you feel you’ve made a “wrong” choice in the fiction. In Becoming Heroes, we put a toxic salve on the wound of morally wrong choices, and we called it Doom. An incentive to be evil in a game about heroes, I still love Doom. But maybe a mechanic that rewarded poorly-thought-out plans, or naivety, or trying to do something inadvisable because that’s who you are.

      • Stras

        “I feel like the rules themselves should never be those obstacles.” I agree with this immensely.  Which is why I prefer risk-reward mechanics for when I play crunchy games (IE: warhammer fantasy 3rd) as opposed to numerical stacking, and difficult rule mastery.

        As for the latter – you’re speaking of something akin to Fate chips in the FATE system.  Self-compels (or GM Compels) that earn you chips for doing the in-character thing, even when it isn’t the most tactically sound or party-beneficial thing to do. It’s not the only way of doing it, but something to look at. 

        • Or Plot Points in Coretex+ games; Smallville and Leverage both let you choose things to put on your character sheet that give you a PP when that thing is, in some sense, a liability. That is, you get triggers for “if I do something ‘suboptimal’, I get a PP.”

          But I think PP/Fate point systems are only one possible reward mechanism. They’re good, in that they’re a deferred reward. But what other options might there be?