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The Fiction Hurdle

March 29, 2013

(Some more thoughts, along the lines of The Concept Hurdle)

Most of the time, if we’re going to sit down and watch a movie, or read a book, we want a little bit of an idea of what it’s about – this is simply to decide if we’re in the mood for this thing.

Unfortunately, what we’ve had historically is games mislabeling these things (“This is a game of wonderous fantasy adventure!” “Actually you grime around in a dark dungeon hoping not to die”), giving a direction with no advice how to get there (“Be heroic!”), or having no direction at all, and the group either has to develop their own tools or flounder.

Fiction Hurdle

The Fiction Hurdle is how a group needs to know the answers to these questions for satisfying and functional play:

What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?

What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?

Typically, though, what we’ve seen happen is that many games leave this open without tools for negotiating it, and the default falls to a GM to establish these in play, with players who cannot pick up on the correct answers for the group (or refusing them) either being ejected from a group or grudgingly tolerated.

We’d also see that the usual fallbacks to solving this for traditional games were either to have an extensive set of fiction to establish the answers for these (“Read these 200 pages then you’ll get it!”) or to fall into a well established genre (“Golden Age Superheroes”, “Licensed-based game based on well known TV or book series”).

Knowing these is important regardless of whether you’re playing a player-input heavy game or a traditional “I control only my characters” kind of game – because even the players want to know what they’re getting into, and when games are significantly longer than movies, it’s a larger commitment of time and energy.

Design Standpoint

From a design standpoint, you want to either answer these completely and communicate it in your game, or, at least, answer it significantly and give tools for the group to finish the rest.   It certainly has to be more than “develop your play style” advice.

This stuff is communicated in: the tone throughout the book, the examples, play advice, example adventures/scenarios, example characters, fiction in the book, artwork and imagery.

(Small related note with regards to representation in games: under “What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?” if your game only presents white people, or men, in the artwork, that also says something… There’s a couple of games I point to where the text says “These are brown people” and the artwork only shows white people.  That’s pretty interesting in terms of what messages the game is presenting…)

Playing At the Table Standpoint

Part of what got me to thinking about this is that when a game is doing it’s job on this front, when I put together a quicksheet, it’s pretty much rules focused, but when a game is not doing it’s job, I have to lay out some of this in the quicksheet so the group can align in play.

Examples of the Hurdle

A few years back I was playtesting Dog Eat Dog – one of the players went into this elaborate description of building a cave hideout full of traps because it was clear he was thinking this game was some kind of survivalist thing when the game mechanics and structure, make such precautions useless, pointless, and counterproductive to the focus of play.   Basically, he didn’t know what kind of conflicts made sense for the game.

My first time running Dogs in the Vineyard, a player wanted to play an older, sinning Dog who basically broke all the rules all the time.   While this could be interesting at the edge of play, what it did was pull things off kilter – the player didn’t know what kind of protagonist made sense for the game.  (and, later, I’d see Vincent’s advice to simply play the game with the characters being simple Dogs – 19, fresh out of training, etc.).

For awhile, I played quite a few games of Falling Blossoms – a samurai game where the outcomes have a sort of back and forth bidding mechanic (“If X happens, then Y happens”).  The problem that would regularly occur is that we’d start sliding into gonzo territory (“Then the demons appear!”) which, in hindsight, made for a weaker game.  We didn’t know what kind of outcomes (or really, boundaries for outcomes) made sense for the game.

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