Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Do the PCs Do?

Ok, I get it. Some settings are more focused than others, I know this, and have no problem with it. In some games, you are samurai climbing a mountain to seek a witch. It's pretty clear what the PCs do - they haven't a lot of choice there. More and more, though, I'm seeing criticism of broadly designed games for the sin of not being narrowly designed. "What do the PCs Do?" is the question that sets my teeth on edge. "Whatever the hell they want to!" is apparently not a sufficient answer. The answer must be explicit, restrictive, and simple. I see this in worded other ways as well: "What is the prototypical adventure for this game?" "How do you see the session structure?" As if there is a correct answer for each game!

The questions imply that there is - must be - a correct answer, and by not giving it, you are confirming that you don't have a clue, particularly heinous if you wrote it, you dolt! When asked of a game which is obviously broadly designed, it's a subtle variation on "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It's a debating trick and a cheap way to score points. It implies poorly thought out design when an easy answer can't be given. Sometimes a game is designed to give the PCs the option of deciding what they will do for themselves.

Thing is, I'm only seeing it lobbed at unabashedly trad games, or at games which are narrowly defined, and where it is perfectly appropriate to ask. Games like Diaspora, which I love for its pure openness, but which are wrapped in the mantle of the Forge Diaspora, are not asked this question. If you ask this of the Diaspora designers, they would have no more clue than I would if you asked me this about OHMAS. The group will define what the PCs do in either game, because they were designed to do just that. In both games, there are scads of tools at the group level that allow the group to define its own focus within a broad array of options. It's a design decision that reaps immense rewards in replay value.



  1. While narrowly focused games are all the rage, a broad setting still has to answer the question: "What do the PCs do?"

    And it doesn't have to be "The game is designed so that they do (this)". It just means that the setting should be presented in such a way that a GM can quickly see a number of things for their PCs to do in the setting.

    Star Wars is a great example. It's a great big galaxy, but there's the omnipresent conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, as well as bounty hunters running around.

  2. I think this is a valid question to ask of any game. I also think that it isn't asked of Diaspora because Diaspora answers it right away—you do what characters did in Traveller.

    A game like D&D doesn't say what it's for, but the tradition has been handed down since the beginning: you fight monsters, take their stuff, and maybe get a bit more high-minded from there if you like. Carve out a fief. Save the world.

    Then there are games that don't tell or imply what they're for. They don't call out the themes the mechanics support; they don't invoke cultural or literary sources that the game was shaped to suit; they don't mention what play might be about. These games have a communication problem, because they're leaving the players to guess what the game is good at.

    Any game can be used for anything, but what kind(s) of play a game good at is something that should be conveyed about every game. It's entirely possible—and valid even if risky—that this information will be granted extra-textually by who the game is aimed at (like OD&D was aimed at a certain subculture with certain shared literary and wargame referents).

    The alternative is handing it to players who have no clue nor any way to fill in the blanks. Those copies of the game go unbought or unplayed, or are played poorly and abandoned.

    (That said, levelling this question at most trad games as if levelling a spear is unfair. Just like with D&D, a bit of historical context is all you need to answer the question when it isn't laid out in the text. The original players of those trad games knew just what they were for.)

  3. Excellent replies, Doug and d7!

    I think as long as the designer asks - and answers - this question in the game design process, the results should be self-evident. It may be a complex answer, with a lot of options, but you should be able to see this when you pick up the game.

    Star Wars is a perfect example of a broad design. Thing is, even here you have to bring in a bit of cultural context - if you don't know the setting, it isn't always immediately apparent. Same with Diaspora - if you don't know the cultural context of Traveller, implying (as Diaspora does) that you do the same things as you do in Trav won't help.

    I don't know the Star Wars game, but I do know that Diaspora presents itself in such a way that if you give a little mental effort, you will understand what is expected of the group in play even if you don't understand the Traveller cultural context. In fact, I can't remember a game where this isn't the case.

    Aside from the designer in the design process, this question, therefore, seems to be valid only for people who have not read the game at all. Am I right? Do you have examples of games which do *not* internally answer this question? I am very curious.


  4. How'd we get wrapped in that mantle, anyway? Seems to me that was mostly just a knee jerk reaction (not by you, Clash) to the idea that player authority can be fun.

    Player authority has always been fun. It just used to be secret or part of the GM's illusion. We've done it since 1976, and the Forge didn't need to give us permission. And, better, it often answers "what do they do?" for you.

  5. Hi Brad!

    I agree - players have had varying authority since the beginning. Some GMs are happy with whatever the players want to take - I'm like this. Others are less so, but few close it down altogether. What is new is codifying it in the rules - taking it from the group realm into the designer realm. One of the things I love about Diaspora is all the group-level stuff in there. It's stuffed with tools, not rules.