Playing the Cultural Game

By | April 25, 2015

Hello everyone!

This past week I had an interesting and enlightening discussion with Keith Slawson and Cameron Mount about the min-maxing subculture, why it came to be, starting character competence and playing the metagame.  I came away from the conversation with several good takeaways, some that I’ll probably be writing about on this very blog, but the one that I’m going to focus on today is about culture, connotation and rules design.

A lot of modern game design is focused on at-the-table collaboration between players, and that is overall for the better.  Collaboration helps ensure that players are “on the same page” when it comes to rules interpretation, interpretation of the gamescape and general expectations about how a game will run.  Sometimes, though, a game’s design or rulebook can take that concept too far, resulting in games that are only playable to small subsets of people. . .or people who will spend more time discussing the rules of the game than actually playing it.

For example, let’s take a design that focuses on players understanding that you’re a “thief” and can do “thiefly things.”  This has become a somewhat common mechanic for handling character skill sets, with the idea that it means you get to Hide, Move Silently, Pick Locks, Pickpocket and Disarm Traps.  That’s a handy shorthand for players who’ve been gaming for a while, they recognize those skills and understand them to be “thiefly skills.”

Now let’s take some folks who aren’t steeped in tabletop roleplay lore.  One person might see “thief” and think of the suave art thief or the thieves from the Ocean’s # movies – people with a lot of planning and preparation, who are good at gathering information and looking good doing it, who always have a trick up their sleeve that they’ve planned for.  Hiding, picking locks, etc. might not even come into that person’s conception of a thief.  Someone else, meanwhile, might picture a back-alley mugger with a weapon and a fierce snarl, preying upon people with too much to lose to dare fight back.

This illustrates the danger of depending on a cultural concept as a part of a game’s design and expecting the players to use rulings instead of clear rules to define the functionality of a role.  If a clear and consistent concept of what this terminology means isn’t developed prior to play, the result may be arguments or other discussion that removes players from the game and forces them into the rules.  And once this happens, play stops.

I don’t like it when play stops.  I try to avoid it at a GM, as a player, and as a designer.

That’s ultimately why I am not myself a fan of “just-figure-it-out” designs for long-term play, and why you won’t see that in Forthright.  This works well enough in small games designed to emulate a single specific thing, which many games are now doing, but for games where campaign play is a major focus then too many opportunities open up for differing expectations.  Even a long discussion that tries to get everyone on the same page at the beginning of a game/campaign is going to miss some things – this is an inevitability.  And that means stopping play to have a conversation about play is going to happen somewhere down the line.

Because culture isn’t a mono-structure.  Culture is something that society and each individual member of it brings into a table.  Each member of a culture has their own lens through which they view the culture, and their own understandings of cultural concepts, and their own connotations of words themselves.  Saying a word’s connotation is is only a loose accumulation of a general effect of the word, and is not set in stone (else it would become a part of that word’s denotation).  Cultural concepts are essentially the same, an aggregate of general similar trends within a population; they are not so solid that you can guarantee every member of that population shares the exact same viewpoint on it.

Which is wonderful!  That’s an enriching and insightful experience for people and for life in general.  From a certain point of view is what keeps civilization evolving.  But it doesn’t help with keeping players playing the same game as each other and it certainly doesn’t favor game-immersion over metagame-discussion.

This is something we have kept in mind as we write the third beta for Forthright, and it’s been something of a struggle.  It would certainly be easier for us to introduce Aspect-like concepts to the game to let players figure out the functionality at their own table.  Because as I’ve said before, every table is going to play differently.  But then I remember the long discussions about how to handle something as simple as the environment being on fire.  And the rules get a little tighter and a little more direct in their functionality 🙂

Thanks for reading!  As always, comments are welcome in the space below.