Saturday, August 31, 2013

No Buttons

I just finished playing Save the Date [], a small freeware video game that ponders the meaning of choice in video games. The central dilemma of the game is trying to find the “good ending,” and at one point it’s brought up that the problem is that there’s no button for it. The fact that your choices are limited by what the programmer put in got me thinking about magic of tabletop role-playing and how you can do anything you want. Then immediately, I thought about the fact that of course that's not true. At the tabletop, you have far more choices than in a videogame—there are no buttons, there are no limits to the maps you can access, or hard-coded NPC behaviors you can’t change. However, there are implicit limits written into the game. Want to do something that your character isn’t good at, or that’s beyond their abilities? The dice will probably tell you “no, you can’t do that.” Beyond that, there are choices you can take that the rules don’t even cover (and thus quietly discourage you from taking). Want to take over a kingdom and tax the populace in D&D 4e? Sure, you can theoretically do that, but there aren’t any rules that govern it, so you and the GM will have to create rules in order to tell that story. Taking a step further, your D&D party can’t venture into space, or travel to the future, or implant cybernetics, or at least not without bringing in rules from another game. And what if you want to tell a story like Save the Date, metafictively pondering the nature of fiction and your character’s role in it... you could use D&D to tell that story, but the rules would be of no use to you. Nor would they be in virtually any game out there (I’m sure there’s some freeform narrativist indie game floating around the net somewhere that allows you to do this, but I don’t know it)—and if you could find a game whose rules support metafictive storytelling, I doubt you could use that same ruleset to run a tactical wargame as well.

Even if you’re playing a game with no rules, a narrativist diceless system like our theoretical metafictive game, there are still fundamental assumptions put in place by the game master—or if you’re playing one of the few games with no GM at all, then the assumptions shared by the table. Want to leave the dungeon and venture into space? Want to run a restaurant? Want to ponder the existential ramifications of being a character in a game? Then your fellow players had better be on board. There are strictures—structures—in place. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Without structure, there’s no story. Pure randomness ends up going somewhere, somewhen, or else it’s nothing more than gobbletygook. And then there’s the question of an ending. Save the Date reflects on the nature of an ending, that its story only really ends when you stop playing, and the ending you choose is the one you, as a player, write for yourself. Nowhere in gaming is this more true than on the tabletop. If you’re not playing a pre-written adventure, it can end wherever and however you like. Even if you are, the campaign as a whole can go into new and strange directions, and end with the PCs as rulers of the world, or slaves, or dead, or whatever. But how often does that happen? How many times is the ending of a campaign simply a non-ending, when real life intervenes and the story is abandoned, never to be brought to a conclusion? Is that an ending? Does it “count”?

Should the rules cover every situation? Should they cover none? If they cover every possible situation, you’re going to get a pretty thick tome—and, of course, there will end up being some situation, somehow, that they can’t cover. And if the rules are pretty much nonexistent, like the six-page system Risus, then what exactly is the advantage of using a ruleset over just sitting with your friends and spitballing a tale. “It helps us tell the story we want to tell” I hear your imaginary voice say—ah ha! So you choose those rules based on the story you’re planning on telling, on the experience you want to have. And if you decide to change your experience, you’re going to need a new set of rules. A new set of assumptions. A genre switch. Some buttons to press.