We recently played How We Came to Live Here—a game about playing in a myth derived from the cultures of various Pueblo peoples. When I first picked up the game, I had concerns. One was about the appropriateness of my taking a role in a Native American myth, but that’s a post for another day. The RPG takes pains to be sensitive to these issues and goes out of its way to build a bridge for someone like myself to be involved. I believe in the good intentions of the work, and it communicates respect for Native American culture in every paragraph.

But in doing so, it remains quiet on gender issues that I think ought to be addressed.

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First, let me just say that the word narrative is terribly overloaded in the game industry. Turn it this way, it means story. Turn it that way, it means the events in a game. Turn it yet another, and it’s a play style. Here, I’m using it to talk about genre. About the kinds of stories we tell with role-playing games. There are an almost innumerable number, each with a different narrative space.

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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. []

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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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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