A game needs to ask questions. For example, Dogs in the Vineyard asks some powerful questions about faith and judgment and mercy. But a game also needs to provide answers to some questions, a very mundane and specific bunch.
The questions are these:
- What do I do first?
- What do I do now?
- When do I stop?
Let me take each one in turn.
First, what do I do first? This is a lot like the second question, but I think that the first time you ask “what do I do now?” is substantively different from the others. You are overcoming inertia. You need an extra-special answer to this question to overcome the desire at the table to sit around talking about your week, the Sportland Sports, why true capitalism is just as untested as true communism. This is often handled in setting-generation systems. Apocalypse World or Fiasco or Smallville give you a rather structured and procedural system for making a mess on a precipice, something that will be interesting enough to make you want to push it and see what happens.
To a lesser degree, you need a design element like this for each session, but you especially need one for the first session. In many games, this is also an (often unspoken) duty of the GM. They are the person who talks everyone through the initial hurdle of coming up with ideas, and they are also the person who has the rights to say “we’re starting now, and this is the first thing that is true in the story”.
Second, what do I do now? At every moment in the game, there should be an answer to this, suggested if not dictated. The answer can be “stop and consider my options,” but there has to be an answer. This is where Vincent’s stuff about games pushing people away from the desire to make good things happen to nice people applies. You need the answer to “what do I do now?” to involve choices that hurt. Because this is the meat, the fundamental core of play, it should be what really engages the people at the table, and keeps things going in that “inevitable but surprising” way that stories need to go.
Finally, when do I stop? This is a question you ask in miniature every session—”is this a good ending line”, in improv terms. But you also have to ask it full-size at every session: are things really ending? Personally, I think that endings give drama meaning. “Jumping the shark” is a symptom of going on past where you should have ended. Some games tell you this more explicitly than others: Fiasco and Polaris and Ganakagok and Annalise all drive you towards a clear, mechanically-defined endgame. That’s not the only way to do this, of course, but I think that it helps the players keep interest and attention when they know their story will have an ending. I’ve had years of games that peter out because no one has an end in sight, so they just stop. I’d rather that the game tell me “you’re done when X happens,” so I can strive towards it.
When the game keeps answering these, it’s a long way towards pulling you along, instead of requiring you to push it to get continued awesome. It’s closer to being active, further from being inert.