Today I’m going to talk about a piece of advice that was frequently given to us when we started designing: play lots of different games. This is, on the face of it, excellent advice. But it’s unfortunately not complete advice, because you can play lots of different games and still build yourself yet another fantasy heartbreaker.
When we started out, we had played lots of different games: D&D, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, Ars Magica, BESM, Dresden Files, various World of Darkness games. . .the games we had heard of in down-east North Carolina, the games we could get in down-east North Carolina. We figured at the time that we had a handle on what playing different games could teach us, because we had played the same kinds of games with all these different systems and saw how their different mechanics worked and didn’t work.
But the thing is, with all those games we were basically just playing D&D with different dice. Because the kinds of stories we were telling with those systems were the same: group of people meet up and work together to defeat enemies in various locations while trying to make the world better and hopefully not dying in the process. Essentially, the bog-standard adventure story.
As a result, we were fully entrenched in the mindset that system doesn’t matter, because from our perspective what these systems were providing were just variant resolution mechanics for the same sorts of situations. Consequently, when we set out to build our house system initially, we took the perspective that we just wanted to produce resolution mechanics with less complexity than those games we had played. We wanted character creation and combat to take less time, and conversation to take more. . .we wanted to focus our game on the stories people would tell with it.
And then we promptly built a system that did none of that. But we had some convenient instructional text explaining how we wanted the system to be used!
So I will never give someone the advice of play lots of different games. Because the number of systems you interact with doesn’t mean a damn if all you’re doing is telling the same kinds of stories. And there’s nothing in the mechanics of the games that we had been playing which would cause us to tell different kinds of stories, or move outside of our normal storytelling pattern.
Instead, play games that force your group to tell different kinds of stories. Stories where the characters are fated to fail. Stories where the focus isn’t adventure, but emotion. Stories that are about doing something other than battling the forces of Evil (or Good!) and trying to survive. Stories that aren’t just the same story in a different resolution system.
Because that’s when you’re going to break into a new perspective.