Tuesday 27 April 2021

The Game in our Heads

To paraphrase a quote I saw in a professional wargaming context:

The game exists in our heads. The rules exist to get it there. 

This encapsulates why sometimes a game grabs me and makes me want to run it right now, where others might earn my admiration upon reading but then sit on my shelf for years. 

What sort of thing makes a game leap off the page in this way?

Mothership has those random patch tables, iconic equipment pages, and unique stress & panic effects for each class. 

Mork Borg has... well just the tone of everything, as well as its hyper-distilled versions of classic procedures like reaction, morale, initiative. 

Spire has its ultra-evocative character classes and their fiction-bending tricks, with a system of stacking fallouts snowballing into big, messy situations.

From Mothership RPG by Tuesday Knight Games

The Shared Reality

When I'm really enjoying a game, I'm not really thinking about the rules. Maybe they're so simple that they don't demand much thought, or I've just internalised them through enough practice. Either way, the bit that matters is the Shared Reality that we're talking about at the table.

I've got a good grip on my character and those of the other players. We're all locked in to the world. We get this place, and we understand how things work. Now we can concentrate on the fun stuff: exploring, plotting, scheming, fighting for survival, getting in over our heads and making a huge mess. 

So if the Shared Reality is all that matters, we can throw this big hardback book away, right? Freeform roleplaying!

Sure! That can work. But it only works if you're already there. If the game is already fully in your heads.

Like I wrote earlier, I think a good game uses its page count to get the players to this destination in the fastest possible time, and sticks around to make that world more interesting. You can do this with one page or five-hundred, but I think there are some common things that make it work for me. 

Waking the Imagination

There are games that have solid rules and interesting settings, but they just do nothing to awaken my imagination in the context of table play. If they're struggling to get me on board as the prospective GM, then what hope is there that I'll be able to get the players invested?

Spire is a good example of a game that has a very specific setting with lots of original elements, but they're presented in a way that encourages your imagination rather than feeling like a history textbook. Some paragraphs are indulgent in their description, but it feels like stuff you could bring to the table. Perhaps it's because it all feels rooted in the now, and much of it is left unexplained. It feels like peeking around a corner and getting a glimpse of a place you could explore, rather than going on a walking tour. Likewise for the character descriptions. You get snapshots of their essence, which your imagination can let spiral into a living being. 

From Spire by Rowan, Rook & Decard.
Genuinely from the first page that I turned to. Every page has something like this. 

Embrace Specificity

A topic I've been thinking about a lot lately.

You know that RPG you bought that pitched itself within quite a broad genre? Maybe it was Dark Fantasy or Sci-Fi Adventure. Maybe it has a setting, but it leans heavily on genre tropes and is left open enough that you can probably use content from a variety of adjacent settings.

Now that's all good in theory. I wrote Bastionland specifically to be able to accommodate content from a range of other sources. But it's dangerously close to placing you under the Tyranny of the Blank Page.

It's not that I find it hard to imagine a Dark Fantasy World, but I feel like I have to put in some work just to get to the point where it's an interesting place to start an RPG session. 

If it's a Dark Fantasy World where the Necromancer won, and now humans live in remote mountain fortresses where the sun shines brightest then we're one step closer to the table already. 

I'm not saying every setting needs to have a silly gimmick, but don't be afraid to get specific. We want our ideas to bloom as soon as the book is opened, sprouting off the page and into the reader's head. Having familiar foundations can help with this, but there needs to be something on top.

Order & Chaos

The more I go down these theory-holes, the more I'm convinced that this is the secret duality at the heart of all games.

The rules are often thought of as providing Order to the game. They take the game from being who can shout "BANG" first, to having an impartial structure that operates beyond the players, perhaps even above them. Roll initiative, now this is the order we'll play in. You're a Cleric, so you can't use that axe. You earned 80xp, 20 more and you'll level up.

It might sound like I'm talking down the importance of Order there, making the rules sound boring. Well sure, in isolation they are. A game of pure rules doesn't sound much like what I want out of an RPG, but mechanics don't only have to be about Order.

From everything that I've written before this, you might think I want an RPG book to "get out of the way" once play starts, and for the most part that's a phrase that I can get behind. But it's really more that I want the Order side of the rules to get out of the way so that the book can stick around to bring some Chaos to the table. 

The classic examples are reaction rolls, morale checks, wandering monsters. Rules that might appear as simulationist cruft to those aiming to streamline things, but really they're mini Chaos Engines that exist to prevent your game turning into a clockwork realm of Order.

Writing about her Errant RPG, Ava calls it Rules-lite, Procedure-heavy, and this really changed how I look at the word "heavy". It's always been a red flag for me, as my preferences clearly lie at the other end of the spectrum. 

I still mostly like games where I don't have to reference the book much during play, but I'm much more open to the idea when those moments of page-flipping are going to inject something interesting and unexpected into our shared reality. 

To paraphrase another quote from a wargaming source:

"No person is capable of imagining something that would never have occurred to them".

From Mork Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr.

What About Adjudication?

Okay, so am I saying that I want a game that's just a big book of random tables, chaos-injecting procedures, with evocative writing and art?

Well... it doesn't sound all bad.

In reality, I get that the rules are sometimes there to provide adjudication. You can run a game entirely based around human judgement, but there are various reasons why a rule or a roll can be preferable to this. 

But when you're designing a game it's easy to think that this is where the game lives. In your choice of die types, your understanding of probabilities, and your clever use of tokens and trackers.

The rules live there, but the game is always in our heads. 


  1. Fascinating. And I agree! The oyster needs its grit.

  2. Well, time to watch that video because I LOVE the "rules light, procedure heavy" explanation - this is exactly how I would describe how I play/run!

  3. I've got a theory (or at least bits and pieces of it) that you can rate most games on the following scale, from 0-10 (or 0% to 100%, depending) and get a sense of how it flows. And from there, you can start to imagine a different, but similar game as you push the dials around:

    How much control do the players have over the game?

    How frequently does the shared conversation supersede the rules?

    How many of the "facts" among the game-state and/or shared conversation have numbers/mechanics attached?

    So, Monopoly is 0%, 0%, and 100%. The second value, conversation superseding rules, starts to creep up as players start engaging in back-room deals and other shenanigans. The third value drops when owning the train stations allows for easier travel, or owning the utilities means you can shut off the power to the hotels of other players.

  4. I had started to despise all of the "genre-neutral" rpg's coming out, because they didn't have to courage to come up with an interesting setting, because they were trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.