Table Experience

By | October 7, 2017

Forthright Open Roleplay focuses on providing players with a specific table experience rather than a specific narrative or emotional experience. The following descriptions are to provide perspective, and no judgments are being made on the superiority of one experience or another. Each game does their thing well, and there are plenty of people who are looking for exactly that. I do not believe there is “one game to rule them all,” but there are definitely games that scratch particular itches better than other games. Now, with the “calm down” disclaimer out of the way, I begin:

In my experience, games like Fate CoreApocalypse World and Torchbearer provide specific narrative experiences:

  • In Fate Core, you play a game similar to the TV shows of Greg Berlanti (ArrowFlashSupergirl) or Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngel). Characters will generally progress toward their goals with varying linearity. In keeping with the Fate Point economy, they will sometimes make pig-headed decisions in keeping with the worst aspects of their personalities. Sometimes, they will be beaten back relentlessly. But in the end, they will annihilate their opposition and achieve their goals – often with a wildly incongruous amount of success, given the preceding story.
  • In Apocalypse World, you play within a rigidly-defined set of genre tropes (the playbooks) that interact with each other in very specific ways. While the story may wander all over the place, it won’t wander outside the clichés expressed by the playbooks the group is using. You will get mechanical resistance to transforming or expanding a character beyond their designed function, and the introduction of new concepts, themes, or genres basically means you’ve got to completely make up new rules or go buy another PbtA game that advertises the functionality you’re looking for.
  • Torchbearer has such a rigidly specific flow that I’m convinced you do not need actual humans involved for a game to play itself out. You start in town, you dungeon (yes, I’m using that as a verb), you get loot and you go back to town or try to continue dungeoning by paying deep attention to minutia. Rinse and repeat.

Likewise, games like Bluebeard’s Bride and Grey Ranks provide specific emotional experiences:

  • Bluebeard’s Bride explores themes of horror, doubt, and loyalty through escalating tensions.
  • Grey Ranks explores the terror of being a child soldier in World War II.

I’ve got less to say about these because, while a lot of folks talk about how games have given them feels, I haven’t experienced emotional manipulation from a game’s mechanics. So designing for it is of no interest to me.

I’m more interested in designing for a functional experience, similar to Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS:

  • D&D provides a rules structure for resolving conflicts. Its genre is loosely-defined (fantasy … ish) and often loops in elements of horror (Ravenloft) and science fiction (Spelljammer). The major narrative element is modular: kill an enemy, get its loot, grow in power. This allows D&D to simulate all sorts of stories, so long as that modular narrative element is the crux of the story.
  • The bread and butter of GURPS is that it is intended to simulate anything the players can think of. Hundreds of splatbooks from Aliens to Mecha to Zombies provide detailed rules on every aspect of conflict resolution across multiple genres. The structure of the story, though, is left entirely to the players and you will receive little to no guidance on how a narrative looks in GURPS.

I think there’s something missing when designing for pure function. D&D resolves this by providing (nowadays) long, over-wrought, partially on-rails adventures that try to be both game and novel (there’s a value judgment in there, I think). And GURPS doesn’t try to provide story, adventure, or anything … here are the rules, you’re on your own figuring out how to use them for storytelling.

So the focus of Forthright has been to provide a clean table experience, merging functionality and general storytelling practice together with communication tips and a social contract.

  • The rules help players resolve pivotal points in the narrative – when they attempt an action that can change the course of events. This is distinctly different from the more “you do a thing, you roll a die” method of purely functional game design.
  • The design is focused on the Cosmetic Rule, enabling easy transition of genres without needing to redefine mechanics or numbers.
  • Rather than mechanically enforcing a story arc, the rules define the major elements of a story structure and provide instruction on moving players from one stage to another without explicitly putting them on rails or allowing them to meander aimlessly.
  • To promote emotional resonance, relationships with NPCs are tracked and can become closer or more distant. Additionally, characters gain benefits not from strictly adhering to their principles, but by making decisions about how they follow their principles – encouraging character growth and further emotional attachment.
  • The Game Charter allows players, during game setup, to announce early what they find unacceptable and what they prefer to experience. By setting these expectations up-front, players do not suffer the shock of surprise if they tread into unpleasant territory.

The experience of running Forthright should be smooth and easy, leading to more satisfying play. We’ve had playtesters tell us that playing Forthright has changed the way they run other games, too, as they adopt the best-practices laid out in Forthright to improve the experiences of their other tables.

As always, we welcome questions and comments!