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.”

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Some games have what I call “grabby”. That special something that makes you feel, viscerally, the desire to play them. For me, Dogs in the Vineyard has it. World of Darkness had it. It didn’t have it when I read it, but after playing it, Apocalypse World has it in spades. And I’m beginning to suspect that Becoming Heroes has it.

Rob Donoghue has recently mentioned that it takes more than being a great game to get a place in his collection. I think that, for me, grabby is part of this additional something. So what’s grabby? I doubt I can answer that, but I can at least explore it.

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Some talk on Twitter the other day (ending here) got me thinking about the best game I’ve ever played. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps understandably, it violated a lot of the common assumptions about how to play role-playing games, but for at least two of us who played—me, and Austin—it changed the way we see role-playing games and what we felt that they could do. What follows is an anecdote, hopefully interesting.

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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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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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This distinction has been brought up many times by many people, though not as much in reference to gaming, and not in so many words. The gist of this distinction is historical: Epic protagonists from ancient sagas like Gilgamesh and Beowulf do not undergo the same kind of psychological change and examination that modern ones do. Gilgamesh is what he is, and his story does not examine or care about the choices he makes nearly as much as their consequences. A lot of creation myths and parables also fit this pattern. When the character is well-defined and consequences are interesting, it can make for a decent story.

The more interesting story in my mind is the one that examines the protagonist’s choices and their motivation. Consequences figure into their psychology, and their future choices, but aren’t the focus of the story. I want to know who this protagonist is, what makes him great, and why he has decided to use his talents the way he does. If Gilgamesh is a good example of an Epic protagonist, then Gregory House might be a good example of a modern one. In the show, his actions are largely secondary to the motivations he has for them. Other characters spend the majority of the show analyzing and overanalyzing his motives, emotions and affect.

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Reading through Leverage, there’s something very interesting to be learned from the section on creating a job. In Leverage, both the show and the game, the crew’s marks are pretty much always rich and powerful, guarded by as much physical, financial, and legal protection as they want. Yet they are all still vulnerable.

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Peter Brook’s excellent The Empty Space has been my reading of late. It’s a wonderful book on theater, but not wholly irrelevant to thinking about role-playing games, either. There are many parallels one can draw between gaming and other media—novels or short stories, plays, improv, movies, TV shows—and much to be gained from looking at media with longer critical traditions.

So, Brook has been talking about the problems with the various participants in an instance of theater. He has moved from the actors and directors through the audience and reached the writers. Audience and actors are clear enough roles in a role-playing game, and director is even relatively clear, but there’s an important sense in which there is no writer—or, to be more precise, no one author. Each participant takes on this role in some fashion at different times, even in the most GM-heavy game. So what does Brook have to say about group authorship?

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