Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Skeleton Key of Gaming And Why You Need It

In my Dresden Files campaign, I've been hard at work destroying the machinations of an elder god.  Flipping it the metaphorical bird, that one they teach you at Miskatronic U that offends them from the fourth dimension.  It's another thing that makes me appreciate how good the FATE roleplaying game system is.  Whatever kind of bird you flip at someone - a metaphorical bird, a real bird, a flat rock you found with enough room to write "BLUEJAY" on it - it's simple enough to cut down on dice rolls and paperwork, yet versatile to cover a gamut of situations.  And if there's anything I like in my games, it's that thing I just wrote about.

In fact, it's so great that I'm now going to point at you and ask why you aren't doing the same!  Yes, you, game designer!  Think hard about me pointing at you in accusation, using all of my GIGANTIC comic book muscles!

Here's the thing.  I played Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition a few times.  And I played 3.5 x+5 times.  And if a plane leaves Chicago at 100 miles per hour crossing a timezone, I would only like these games yesterday.  I felt it hard to achieve a certain role.  I was a fighter in both games, and these games offered so many feats and powers that I didn't know which one to use in which situation.  This is strange for a fighter, seeing as how his only God-given purpose is to divorce head from body.  But these games asked for paperwork.  And the last thing I want to do during a game is roleplay with some accountant splat book.

Back on topic.  I wanted options as a fighter.  But it had to feel natural.  Checking mechanics for each feat or power to see if it could apply now or if it had recharged yet felt like homework.  Remember that algebra problem I asked earlier?  It's called "foreshadowing".  But I didn't want all of these moves and abilities to check on constantly.  I would've been much happier with a smaller set of abilities that each had enormous use.  I wanted a Swiss army knife, not a Swiss army.  I may be kinda big, and look exactly like a military bunker whenever I wear a grey shirt, but having a lot of men inside me is a joke that will lead to an uncomfortable pause.

One Uncomfortable Pause Later

But FATE is great for my Swiss army knife needs.  All you need are Skills and Aspects.  Aspects let you gain advantages on tasks.  Skills gives you bonuses for the task.  They both handle so much of the game with so few mechanics to wrestle with.  Other mechanics don't do much and take up company time with water cooler talk.  These other guys are the movers, the ones with vision.  They're the ones that say, "Hey, we want everyone to stop gathering around the water cooler.  Where can we get that poison from The Princess Bride?"

Let me present it another way with an example from my briefcase of anecdotes, this time from video games.  Remember Devil May Cry?  It's a video game that gave you a ton of gadgets and asked you to switch them around to rack up combos.  It also rated you too, in a bout of video game insecurity.  I personally didn't see the point - a few sword slashes plus lightning from my magic demon guitar usually took care of things.  It just makes more logical sense.

Now let's switch to Batman: Arkham Asylum.  You get an array of tricks there too, but direct combat is way simpler.  You can attack, stun, counter, or use an item.  I'd say there aren't many frills but that's girl language and this is a blog for men although it is kind enough to accomadate me too.  But each move is useful in many situations, and you'll be relying on each of them.  We're returning to that Swiss army knife metaphor.  You aren't overburdened with stuff to use, and your attacks plus your items equal a no-algebra Batman experience.

Now let's switch to Super Mario World because this is actually a season of Quantum Leap, twist ending!

What I'm trying to say here is that I'm right.  By giving a player a few number of tools that fit many situations, instead of a bunch of tools with one real use each, players will have less headaches trying to wield them all successfully.  "Wow!" they'll say.  "Matt was right!"  And I'll get a little smug about it, I admit.  But even then, these tools need to fit a useful role, or players won't bother.  Think of it like having four-five skeleton keys on a ring.  Instead of "which key do I need to have", it's "which key fits the best in this situation?"

That Is A Really Small Toolbox

Now, there are some games that are trying to simulate real-life experiences.  Maybe they want to simulate things that could never happen, like a zombie apocalypse.  And trust me, when the dead rise from their graves and feast on the living, you'll want to sort it all out in an orderly fashion.  That's fine and dandy sometimes, but I find the best games are easy on both player and GM.  Providing a basic toolbox that covers most of the game is the best way to do it, because once you master that toolbox, both sides can apply it to any problem.  There's that adage about everything being nails when all you have is a hammer.  What that guy didn't realize is that it totally works, in games and in life.

Honestly, you'd be surprised how often you can solve the problems you cause with a hammer using the very same tool.

What about you?  Do you think it's better to have a few, diverse options over many?  Be sure to reply with words, I haven't figured out the telepathy plugin for this yet.

(Oh yeah, the key up there's from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.)

1 comment:

  1. Diverse options. I like to break my boundaries and not be limited to something that's great but could be better if it only had this. Granted there's only so much imagination can do for a game without breaking it. I want stuff I can use regardless of the situation. (Use what I like not be forced to use Item A cause Item B is ineffective).