Whitehall Paraindustries is an uncompromising blog about “RPG Theory and Design”. The author Brian Gleichman provides a series of foundation articles on different RPG Theories, why all this theory has a bad reputation, and the flaws of GNS. The latter is (I believe) an expansion and clarification of Gleichman’s earlier Comments on the GNS model. It’s all rather long but might be a useful counterpoint to my GNS footnotes and the original Forge articles, if you can even be bothered.
What I want to discuss is Chrome, as presented in the most recent article Game Design By Exception. It’s a well-thought out piece that draws attention to the idiocy of a certain kind of game design where the core is coherent but boring and all the interesting bits are rarely-used ephemera around the outside.
I intuitively know that game. Any game reliant on exclusive character class (D&D, Rifts, Cyberpunk 2020, Vampire if you include clans etc.) fits the definition, as does AD&D and any other games with subsystems for very specific activities. You can argue that spelunking rules are part of AD&D because it’s a core activity–in which case, the seventh D&D stat should be “spelunking”.
The proliferation of special powers, extra rules and so on is a symptom of the 90s where players needed to differentiate themselves from each other. However, the overwhelming feature of the games I played was not divergence into sub-systems, it was divergence into secrecy. This was (is) particularly troublesome in Live Action games where it would be impossible to make people divulge their secrets, because it was the only piece of power those players had over their peers.
The system ephemera should be Chrome–no more than motifs that sharpen the focus on what makes the character different without making them mechanistically different. Vampire could have been like this, if the choice of clan didn’t unlock a particular mechanical subsystem (although I guess it would unlock a social subsystem, which is even more prone to the whims of GM fiat and secrecy).
Two conclusions come from this:
1/ for all the authors opposition to GNS and (it appears) the culture of indie rpgs, the anti-Design by Exception manifesto is almost identical to GNS notions of coherent design. Which goes to show that as left and right move towards extremes, they tend towards being more similar than different.
2/ secrets are another form of exception. The good news is they can be engineered into the core game with mechanics for forcing their revelation. This is the approach I’ve seen in more than one commercial freeform game.
Towards the end of the essay, the author notes two attempts to avoid design by exception. The OSR (meaning D&D clones) is one approach:
Attempts to avoid this include the OSR method of burying one’s head in the sand, i.e. go back to an old edition (with less Chrome) and spend as little time as possible in combat because it’s now boring. I suppose a victory dance of some type helps one deal with this self-defeating option.
The other example is Dark Heresey, which is not a game I’ve played–but appears to behave exactly as every other percentile system I’ve encountered:
Limited to a closed ended d100 system, things are only vaguely interesting when effective chances for success hover around the middle of the random number span- say 30-70 percent chances.
This results in a game that represents the mighty genetically enhanced superhuman Space Marines with stats only 10 points higher than normal men… so maybe a base 58% to hit instead of 48%. The mind is underwhelmed by such power. Instead it’s ‘Talents” (i.e. special abilities, i.e. Chrome) that’s suppose to make up the difference.
p>The conclusion that “core mechanics need to be interesting of and by themselves” is worth challenging, however. This statement assumes a single motivation for playing, where it is axiomatic that no single motivation exists. GNS theory may have its flaws but it does recognise preference.
The System-Matters dogma is correct in one regard, that system shapes play. But it’s more general than that: gaming process affects play. And the thing about gaming process is the reliance on Tacit Knowledge. In other words there are aspects of what makes a game an enjoyable experience that are near impossible to communicate.
This makes a nonsense of any designer who insists that a game can be made objectively better by engineering alone, and that you will have more fun by following one ruleset to the letter over another (or disregarding both). The tacit experience of humour, of social interplay, of when to take the rules seriously and when to lampoon them is learned by interaction with real people.
The procedural aspects are easy to engineer, and if designed well into the core then easy to enforce with the players. But procedural beats alone don’t make for an exciting game. Drama (and gratification) is the soul of a good game; and while drama can and should come from random, unexpected dice results, it takes skill for GM and players to spot those opportunities and make use of them.