01 November 2011

Vitality in Games

No, I'm not talking about in-game vitality (although I could, now that you mention it, and maybe I will again). I'm talking about the vitality of the game itself, as a system.I'm talking about the way the system feels alive, where you'll do things like the guy above this- where you'll stick your sword in the dragon's belly and spill out its guts, and your character is happy, and you as a player are happy, and for a second you're standing around in that post-massacre bliss, tense and happy to be alive.

But don't make a mistake- I'm not talking about a game that has realistic combat, because that can be overly boring and stupid, too. I'm also not talking about a game that even deals primarily with combat, because that tends to be boring. The only reason I'm singling combat out as much as I am is because it's one of the very few things that cannot be fairly adjucated without an element of chance- mostly because we can pretend to do everything else (and very few of us seriously consider LARPing with our tabletop gaming). And I'm not talking about the sort of game where everything has a stat and there are rules for the structural stability of ditches next to the part about cutting out dragon spleens.

No, what I'm talking about is a system that gets you caught up in it, the sort of system that makes everybody stand up and high-five each other because that was totally awesome and dude, fuck yeah! The sort of game that makes you remember that you're playing a game, instead of some detailed-ass simulation of some scrubby douchebags in armor. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that I don't inherently like the way combat in most role-playing games are done; instead of being a series of high-stakes, back and forth duels, it ends up feeling like an accounting session where the first guy to run out of Resource X loses. That's not what I'm looking for. And I know that it's only natural that, in a game where the duration of torches and the number of iron rations are absolutely essential and you might kick yourself for buying two less pitons than you need, that combat should end up like that. It's fine- but it's not what it should be. What it should be is, basically, a fantasy-themed version of craps. And I think that could work.

In this case, we'd take each player's actions first and foremost and the DM's actions mostly as responses to what the players describe. It'd replicate the feeling of "us vs him", first of all, and secondly, set up a  risk vs reward sort of deal. You could try and do a flying leap over towards the dragon, but it's risky and you could get killed... or you could try and sneak in, with the only real penalty being that you got caught. Obviously, your DM should be a bit of a hardass about it, because that's kind of the point. For you to get what you really want, you need to be so uncomfortable that you're squirming a little bit. You need to think "aw shit, I dunno...", or else you need to step down a little bit and maybe try for something easier.

And then, when the DM is satisfied and the player is satisfied, and everybody's figured out what they're going to do, we get some dice a-rollin. And this is where the dice math gets complex- there needs to be a way to take into account everybody's favorite part of a roleplaying game (fuckin' Attributes and stuff), but also tie it into a "roll this and you win" and "roll this and you lose" such that it scales naturally with both the difficulty and the risk. Something like how your attribute determines how difficult of an action you can "bet", and how every action that goes a couple of "steps" down is easier... but even that has too much of a taste of the sort of book-skimming rigidity that can really kill a stressful moment. It might even be easier just to have sort of roll-modifiers to certain things (like if you're playing a Barbarian, you can reroll a failed roll if it would result in your death, and you can nudge a die in some way when it comes to smiting bitches with your sword). A Fudge-esque system, if you will, where your character is assumed to be more or less average in everything that isn't mentioned.

I think it's the skeleton of an extremely vital game, even though I have no idea how to play craps. But I think it could work. At the very least, it could be an interesting way to waste an afternoon!

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