Sandboxing Shadowrun?

In the previous series of posts, I examined the way certain games aren’t clear about how you should be playing them. Every other rules and procedures might be in the core rulebook, from character creation to equipment minutiae, you’ve got loads and loads of details but the book stays silent on how to actually play the game.

Shadowrun is a good example of this: in what you could call the “GM section”, you get no true directives to build a shadowrun. Isn’t that a bit weird, considering that the game is supposed to revolve around these jobs? Well, even in the 20th anniversary edition, you still have no tools to help you structure a shadowrun, no indications as to how much should a hit or an extraction job  pay or how to plant clues in important locations.

Recently, I had the joy of discovering both old-school inspired games and highly functional sandbox gaming. So, what I’m offering now is to first examine what’s so satisfying in that old-school and sandbox mix and then see how we could import some of these features in a Shadowrun campaign. My aim is to provide play procedures without altering the rules found in the 20th anniversary edition.

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Problems I have with some ideas about gaming [Concluded]

“The game itself has nothing to do with the gaming experience being fun: it’s the people at the table that make the experience rewarding.”

This is a really disturbing one. If it is true, then why bother buying, reading, explaining to fellow gamers and somehow using a game text at all? Why waste time, energy and money when all that matters in the end is to have participants that ensure the activity is fun and rewarding? This idea has some truth to it, but seems to be the result of confusion about the role of the game in the fun generation process.

Sure, you need to enjoy the company of your fellow gamers to have a good gaming experience. If you hate or despise the people you play with, don’t go counting on the game to make up for that and help you have fun regardless of which people you’re playing with.  Also true is the fact that players who invest themselves in the activity and deliver great performances (be it acting, resources managing or efficient tactical choices) will make the experience more enjoyable. Once again, the rules cannot guarantee that people will engage the game to the fullest of their capabilities. Thus, if the quality of the experience is so intertwined with the performance and the personality of the participants, what are the rules good for?

Let’s take an example in another domain; team sports. You’ll have most fun playing a team sport when your teammates and you take it somewhat seriously and give it your best shot. The rules don’t dictate your level of commitment to the sport nor does the equipment. But what the rules and the equipment do is provide a context for you to perform in. Rules tell you what you can and cannot do, they explain the goal of the sport and what are the means and conditions to achieve it (for example, how to score points). They don’t tell you how to outsmart your adversary even though they encourage you to do so. But they do give you a frame of reference for you to judge your performance and get feedback. In essence, they give a purpose and a meaning to your behaviours in the course of a social event.

Moreover, we can find another example of the impact of the game on our enjoyment of the experience by thinking about the games we don’t like. If the only thing that matters is playing with people we like to hang out with, why is that we dislike certain games? Wouldn’t all games be fun and enjoyable, then? After all, so long as you keep playing with people you like you should have fun no matter what.

The reason why I’m having fun is that I’m interacting with you in a certain way and that interaction is shaped by the rules of the game. That particular brand of fun wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for you AND the game.

Problems I have with some ideas about gaming [continued]

“You could get the same gaming experience with [Game X]”

First, a bit of terminology is needed so that you can see where I’m coming from on this matter. I prefer to use the terms “experience” or “gaming experience” because they more accurately point at what is produced by the game. Also, it serves to show that fun is derived from the experience and not from the game itself. I play to experience something first and foremost; fun is a by-product of that experience.

Now, this isn’t some kind of special state of awareness or even a doorway for introspection. “Experience” only means what I’m actually going through at the table. It could be the rush of combat, the hesitation I’m feeling when I have to make a tactical choice or feeling the sadness of my character. When I’m hesitating, I’m not having fun at that moment but on another level and a bit later I’ll be able to derive fun from all of this.

Here, my problem is that I don’t see how two different games could produce the same experience. I mean, they both can be fun and both can offer to make tactical choices. But, since there not the same game that means they both have different procedures and reward systems that will make me behave differently depending upon which game I’m currently playing. Granted, games based on the same rule engine could produce experiences so similar as to be described as the same. (Much like Star Wars Monopoly feels pretty much the same as classical Monopoly.) But the way you fight for something meaningful in Savage Worlds has little to do, in terms of what is actually going on at the table, with how you’d experience it playing Burning Wheel. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, just different. You could have examples of this going on in videogames as well. Go ask fans of first-person shooters if they think all these games are the same in terms of experience.

As an aside, people also point out the fact that you could tell the same story with their favoured game than I did with mine. So they don’t see why I would prefer to tell it with a particular game. Of course, the series of events in both cases could be the same and if both games accommodate the same genre, the characters could be “replicas”. Both stories would probably be satisfying and cool, but the actual feel when we play couldn’t be the same. Much like when you have a good remake of a movie. Both can be enjoyable, but the remake isn’t a perfect copy; it’s its own thing.

To have the same gaming experience with two different games, you have to make their rule sets be as similar as possible. This implies that you’d probably have to change and “redesign” Game X to make it fit with the gaming experience produced by the original game. But then, you’re not playing Game X anymore.

[To be continued…]

Problems I have with some ideas about gaming

For quite some time now, I’ve read and participated in discussions revolving around game design and more precisely about the designer exposing how he intends his game to be played. Among the ideas that bother me are propositions like “I don’t want/need the designer to tell me how to play”, “You could get the same gaming experience with [Game X]” or even “The game itself has nothing to do with the gaming experience being fun: it’s the people at the table that make the experience rewarding.” Let’s take the time to examine these and find out what’s bothering me.

“I don’t want/need the designer to tell me how to play.”

See, part of the reason why I quit playing games like those from the old World of Darkness line, Shadowrun or Cursed Empire is that despite the fact that I really enjoy the setting and the color of these games, I simply don’t know how I’m supposed to play them. Maybe I’m having difficulties understanding the game text or I fail to see how it is a good set of instructions on how to actually play the game. But what if these game texts actually don’t instruct you on how to play? Could it be possible that they assume you know how to play or that by reading the text, you would somehow “get it”?

I mean, the designer of a roleplaying game certainly has an idea about how he intends people to play his game. There must be something he wishes people to do when they sit down at the table. Ideally, this must have something to do with what makes the game fun. “Why is my game fun to play? Why should people want to learn and play it?” These are legitimate questions a designer must bear in mind when he commits himself to writing a game. After all, a game should be a set of rules and techniques that, when used properly, produce a rewarding experience (that wouldn’t be produced reliably otherwise). The question I have now is: Isn’t the purpose of the game text to actually teach us how to produce that gaming experience, the one the designer believes is the reason why we should learn and play? And if the game text fails to do so, what am I supposed to do?

I don’t mind getting better at a game. I do enjoy when you discover more and more what can be done with it. But I should still be able to know how to play from the game text itself. If I have to go on forums, blogs and be taught by someone how to produce a rewarding experience with a game, there’s definitely a problem. Mind you, this is not the same thing as misinterpreting the game text. On one hand, there’s something lacking in the game text itself while on the other hand, the instructions are there but I didn’t understand them correctly.

So, I’m inclined to say that I do want the designer to tell me how his game is supposed to be played. The procedures to produce the kind of play intended should be clear and obvious. Now, if I want to drift the game or change the rules in any way, that’s up to me. But it is the designer’s job to inform me about what he actually wants me to do with his game.  After all, a board game designer wouldn’t simply give you a box containing a board, some tokens and dice while telling you: “Hey, it’s your game! Who am I to tell you how to have fun with it?”

[To be continued…]

Because I had to.

Greetings everyone !

It’s been quite some time now that I didn’t share or write my thoughts in any media. I wish to get back into writing and I figured a blog would be the right way to do so. Here I am, then. My main goal is to develop some writing discipline by making a habit of posting here.

What you can hope to find here are ideas about roleplaying games and philosophy. I have no pretention to offer any groundbreaking insights or revolutionnary ideas. But still, sometimes the same “truth” expressed in a different manner can have an easier time finding the right path to enter someone’s mind… or heart. What I propose is to walk together oblivious about whether we’ll find anything new or not.

So, if I’m not here to write about what’s never been said nor thought, why am I writing ? Because I have to.