The Play’s the Thing

Friday night is Game Night, and Game Day found me bogged down in meetings until about 4:00pm. When I came home, after making sure my partner had energy enough for games after her own hectic day, I sat down to put us together a couple of characters from That System. She wanted to make a goblin thief, so I made her a goblin thief in the span about twenty minutes, making sure that it more or less satisfied her succinct vision of what a thief ought to be. Then we had dinner and I took a shower, with left me with about fifteen minutes to design an all-purpose priest. (Notably, one player who was not entirely prepared for the game due to Life and Such arrived and had a functional warrior generated for her by another player in about 10-15 minutes.) We’re all gaming vets, and we are prone to play plenty of one-shot diversions, so we’re well-versed in getting underway in a hurry.

At one level, that speed of character generation is a virtue, though I should note that part of the reason we were able to create folks on paper so efficiently is because we’ve used That System plenty of times before. At another level, however, a couple of us came away with prototypical, somewhat generic characters. We didn’t go out of our way to optimize, but the contours of establishment and development seemed to be pretty clear-cut for most of the known flavors. In the case of my priest, for example, taking default settings at every stage was a perfectly viable approach. I didn’t need much imagination to get going (a benefit and a drawback, for all the usual reasons). Of particular interest to me in the framing of my critter was the stage at which I had to pick basic spells. As much as I wanted to adopt some exotic and flavorful options, to design a feller who was esoterically zesty, I found myself leaning toward the more serviceable, versatile ones again and again. The same held true for most peeps at the table, who are practiced and skillful enough to make the sorts of choices that make a group gel and, conveniently, enhance its chances of surviving the session. Assuming folks are even vaguely social, it’s a course of empire most of us are prone to follow.

The setup and play–aided, abetted, and complicated by my own game design thoughts, which I’ll speak of in a moment–brought to mind my first experience with a game called Invisible Sun. I had more lead time going in to game prep, so I was able to mull my character ideas over for a bit, and I was also new to the mechanics, which can get fairly fiddly. What emerged as a result was a distinctive critter–distinct in my imagination, at least, as I’m never entirely sure how much characterization I actually bring to the table. It helped that I had only an uncertain sense of what was actually possible within the game framework, but it was a much more invested sense of establishment and a much less predictable arc of development. (For one player I think the experience of character creation and play was even more transformative, helping them to appreciate their own life in illuminating and indicative ways.) I think there’s a buttery zone somewhere in between both kinds of design: a mode that lets you get things underway in a hurry, and a mode that makes you feel deeply invested and productively uncertain–but that also makes you feel hopeful and curious to see what happens.

Peeling away the layers of a game experience is always a touch-and-go process, but I think at day’s end these reflections on play (improved by some questions about game mechanics I posed to my folk over the weekend) helped me to pin down a few of the essential motives that bring folk to the table. Foremost among them, all matters of mechanics aside is the desire to have creative, meaningful fun. Both the noun and the adjectives are a little loaded there, and part of me feels like that looks a little trite on the screen. All told, however, I think they capture the tensions there worth exploring in terms of game design. It’s hard to be creative without some measure of scaffolding (an infinite field of possibility can actually get in the way of creativity); it’s hard for players to create when they don’t know what’s viable. At the same time, it’s easy to get bogged down in mechanics and branchings, and it’s easy to feel as though many developmental options are functionally foreclosed. Meaning is an even more slippery critter, in that it’s a broad concept that has to cover countless points on the compass. For some folks gaming is utterly transformative, and every game is a vehicle that lets them try on personalities and possibilities, test visions and ambitions, attitudes and values. But for many folk any game that lets us escape from the drudgery of life for a few hours is all the meaning we need. And fun is the most elusive concept, one of those know-it-when-you-feel-it phenomena. It requires an almost spiritual commitment to the game, a readiness to find delight even when your character meets with reversal after reversal, even when the dice seem to be aligned against you. I don’t think it’s possible for a game simply to engineer those experiences, to deliver creativity, or meaning, or fun reliably, but I think a nicely-made game can yield conditions that allow them to happen, an openness that creates the space in which they become possible.

The game I hope to design started in an entirely unrelated intuition, a sense that it involved a structural something I hadn’t seen before, but before I get all the mental machinery up and running I feel like I need to refine my Why while I take out the How for a few test drives. As is the case with most journeys, there are countless ways of setting out, but the reasons for going at all, when we could just hide out in our hobbit-holes and read our books, is well worth pinning down.