All Games Must Be Played

I ran a game of All Flesh Must Be Eaten tonight.  It was fun, but it really highlighted for me why I don’t like a lot of traditional games.

You know what I mean by “traditional.”  Hardcover book.  Supplements.  Rules are essentially in-game physics.  GM interpretation is pretty much all.  I brought this on myself; Brendan’s wife Angela was roleplaying for if not the first one of the first times, and it was research for a story, so I wanted something that was indicative of “standard” roleplaying, not something more fringe and indie like Zombie Cinema or Escape from Tentacle City.

For one, it’s tiring.

I had pretty much 24 hours notice that I was running again.  (I volunteered.  I’m a sucker for punishment.)  I had to refamiliarize myself with a game I had never played (I’d played other Unisystem games), make six characters, make some zombies, and think about the situation, setting, and things that might happen.  After all, I’m the GM, everything pretty much comes from me.  This took a lot of time an energy.  Compare to ZC or EfTC, either of which are no prep (and no-GM for that matter).  I like making characters, and that’s usually done by the players, but it wasn’t particularly interesting.  I feel that a ‘campaign’ for this game would be annoying to prep.

Because really, it’s all about the GM.

In these games, the whole story framework rests on the GM.  The players have quite a bit of creative input, but the GM is the one who sets the scenes, closes the scenes, decides what happens, when, where, and how it happens.  This is also exhausting during play.  I felt this during Steal Away Jordan, and I felt it during All Flesh Must Be Eaten- it’s really tiring coming up with every scene, scene after scene.  (And combine this with the above, plotting opposition, floor plans, NPC behaviors… I don’t know how we did it!)  I find myself prefering games where either the players get a say in scene dealies (the strong player authorship focus of FATE, for example), or ones where the game itself has built in pacing mechanisms (many games with a scene economy do something like this, such as Polaris or Burning Empires.)  Even Agon puts the players largely in control of the type of scenes they have, and a budget for the GM is an incredibly useful tool.  In fact, I’ve found the 3 encounters per adventure basic rule of thumb and the xp budgets for encounters in D&D 4th edition wonderfully useful for plotting encounters.

I don’t like Rules as Game Physics

What I mean by this is the idea that game rules are sort of a system for what happens within the fictional world.  I prefer rules being a system for determining what happens next within the story.  If this doesn’t make any sense to you, consider that the first prioritizes things like “realism,” and the latter tends to prioritize things like “drama.”

It’s also a heavy burden on the GM to be the sole arbiter and interpreter of every roll.  Games with things like stakes or empasis on opposed rolls or player narration divide up those duties, dislocating some decisions from one person, either making them irrelevant and built into the game, or the conflict really being about who gets to say.  (Or even more interesting and complex things.)

Roll to Hit Round After Round is Boring

<an, after playing D&D 4th, I don’t know how I can go back to this.  I mean in the current version of D&D, you’ve got so many different choices each turn.  Even if all your big powers are gone, you’ve still got two different spiffy cool at-will attacks you can do, so the wizard always can choose between (say) Magic Missile and Scorching Burst, and the fighter can either Cleave or Reaping Strike.  There’s always a meaningful choice each round.

In the old days, you could “do whatever you wanted,” which usually was to attack.  I hit, I miss, I hit, chip away at hit points ad nauseum.  The conventional wisdom was that you livened this up with interesting discriptions for your actions.  But the actual activity going on is the same damn thing round after round, session after session.  This is exactly how combat is in lots of games, not just older versions of D&D or Unisystem, but most roleplaying games out there.  You’ve maybe got some powers, maybe some maneuvers, maybe some resources to fiddle with, but for the most part you have a cool move that you do turn after turn after turn.

The gameplay solution is clear: make every turn matter, and every turn interesting.  D&D 4 does this.  Agon does this.  Burning Wheel does this.

The opposite direction is to make fights a single die roll, or series of short die rolls- at least, the same system you’d use for any other opposed roll.  I think this is the right move for most non-combaty games.

I’d really be happy seeing more of either- exciting nuanced systems with lots of crannies and options that change from round to round, or streamlined systems that let you resolve the damn fight and move on to what really matters- the characters.


One thought on “All Games Must Be Played

  1. Brendan says:

    Thanks for putting the game together on such short notice. I enjoyed the session, and Angela got a lot of useful material out of it. The practical jokes were a lot of fun, especially when you psyched us out in one of the last scenes, with Lamont pretending to be a zombie at exactly the moment when we expected him to reappear as one of the walking dead.

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