Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Mixing Up the Menu

This weekend, I was spending some time thinking about my just-finished campaign, Sunset Empire. Despite all my fancy talk last week about the Short Campaign Model, this was a big game. It sprawled out over four years and three seasons (with any number of different games interspersed between them) and incorporated a huge amount of Victorian ephemera, characters, and storylines.

It went on long enough that my style of preparing for games actually changed over the course of its run. I went from a research-and-written-notes-heavy style early on, which I felt was important to get my head into the setting -- by making sure I had the details right -- to a more open prep style where I'd come to the table with a few handwritten notes for scenes, and sometimes that was all.

Early episodes were expansive affairs involving detective work, exploration, and travel. Season two spent more time focusing on character development, with plot details more loose and flexible, and in the background I was slowly building to the vampire attack on London. The finale was something I ran with my hand firmly on the tiller, driving us from scene to scene as fast as I could; although it's not usually my style, I had a bunch of combat and dice rolling, to keep the stakes high and push the characters to their limits.

Looking back on it now, I pretty much used every trick in my GM tackle box in this game. I had traditional adventures that would look very familiar to trad gamers (especially to players of Call of Cthulhu), and loose, improvised excursions that were almost entirely player focused and driven. And here's the thing: none of those styles or techniques are objectively better.

I play a lot of indie games that put a lot of the power in the players' hands, and it's true that my sympathies lie strongly in that direction these days. For HTHD play, there is simply more support in indie games (or storygames, or choose your euphemism) than there is in trad games. That's a fact. You could do HTHD play using a trad system like D&D 4th Ed (just as an example, not because I'm particularly picking on D&D), in much the same way that you could use a peanut butter sandwich as a brake pad. Perhaps it would work, but there isn't much support for that.

But I feel like there is still a lot of value in the way traditional games do things. It is still unquestionably a lot of fun to roll dice and not know how they will change the story's direction. It is rewarding for players to use all the tools at their disposal (i.e. on their character sheets) to solve a problem in a way you weren't expecting. It's cool to play through a mystery story, turn up the clues, and nab the perp at the end.

Here's where I'm going with this. I feel like one of the things that made Sunset Empire great was that it embraced a lot of different kinds of play, and borrowed freely from both the old school and the hippie games we love at our table. And that's really an important thing -- GMs should be able to develop games that are big and rich and complex on every level. If you don't roll the dice for a few sessions, and just play out scenes essentially freeform, that's fine and good. That doesn't mean you can't go to the rules when you need to.

Rules matter. Rules are the players' primary way of interacting with the game world, the way they put the choices they make into effect. Sometimes it's cool to make those rules as loose as possible, giving the players the authority to do whatever they want. Sometimes it's cool to have rules that are tight and demanding, because that mechanically increases the tension for the players.

The important thing for me is being conscious of what's necessary in a given situation. A lot of the time, I get by with a very light touch. As others have observed, if you apply the logic that you should Say Yes Or Roll The Dice, you can actually get a fair amount of juice in your game by just giving your players exactly what they want. (Well, it helps that my players have a real masochistic streak. They like it when their characters are miserable.) And being able to turn up the crunch occasionally is important too.

I guess what I'm arguing for here is complexity. Games can be short, focused, drama laden affairs full of conflict and activity. They can also be experiences that develop over a longer period, with more room for a multifaceted approach. Note that I'm not calling for the old-style endless campaigns here, just for a longer arc (or arcs).

Let's see if I can reduce this to a tortured metaphor:

Games can be a light snack (a one-shot, or convention game), a weeknight dinner (a short campaign model game), or a lingering affair with multiple courses. All of these things have value, bringing different pleasures to the table, and being able to cook them up using a multitude of tools and techniques is something a GM should aim for.

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