I was talking the other day about broad categories of games, and I mentioned two particular modes, framework games (like 4e, where there’s an existing framework that all expansion is built within) and modual games (Like storyteller or Cortex, games with a solid core where new rules and subsytems can be added and subtracted to support particular ends). Two other large categories worth mentioning are the molecular games, those where everything is modular to a very fine grain, but there’s an overall system to the modularity. Hero is the best possible example of this, but games like GURPS and BESM also qualify. At the other end of the spectrum you have the guidelines systems, which usually have only a few rules that provide sweeping guidelines for play. Risus, Over the Edge and some builds of Fate fall into this category.
I have always been a big fan of guideline games. Over the Edge was the first one I was ever exposed to, and it was a totally eye-opening experience. The freedom and simplicity it represented was almost too much to wrap my head around. Ever since, I’ve greatly enjoyed playing and running guidelines games because it’s so easy – there’s very little bookkeeping for setup or prep, and it’s easy to get right to play. They’re also fun and easy to design because you can produce a comprehensive game in only a handful of pages.
Really, guideline games are so compelling that it’s easy to overlook their flaws. Sure, some are structural to the games, such as a potential for mechanical sameness among the characters, but I think the real problem is even more profound, and it can be found in the skill list.
See, most guideline games are pretty freeform in terms of what skills/traits/descriptors or whatever the player is going to come up with. On paper, this provides limitless freedom to create, but in practice it creates a situation where players who know what they want think “This is easy!” and players who don’t are bereft of any kind of guidance. This is a “blank page problem”, and the irony is that it’s the reason these games are often terrible for players who are new to gaming despite being obvious choices for their simplicity and ease of play.
They are, however, usually just fine for experienced players, especially those with enough know-how to impose their own structure. That’s great for play, but it introduces another landmine – this ease of use often makes experienced players even MORE blind to the reasons a newbie might have trouble, and that makes for a cycle fof suc for everyone at the table.
Anyway, I mention all this in part because over at Gameplaywright they asked the very interesting question of “What’s the best game for a total newb?” and that forced me t consider my own thoughts on this. Historically, I would have absolutely leaned towards a guideline-y game like Risus or my own Wheel of Fate, but these days I’m less certain of that. As much as I’m a fan of simplicity, I think even a newbie player can handle a few more moving parts, especially if those parts give some indication of what the novice player can _do_ in these strange and new circumstances.
This is a less than academic concern since I’ll be running a game for a tabletop novice later this month, and I’m not yet sure exactly what system I’ll be using. But trying to answer that is proving quite inspirational.
1 – These four categories are not all-encompassing, nor are they supposed to be. the purpose of the categories is not to label all possible games, but rather to just give a shorthand for what I consider Unisystem and Cortex the same “type” of game.
2 – Fudge, and by extension fate, can potentially fall into any of these categories, though usually it’s molecular or guidelines as contradictory as that may seem. It comes of a strangely mixed community and an those that the game was more of a toolkit than a finished product.
3 – Not coincidentally, this also spares a designer from having to come up with skill lists, advantages or disadvantages, or other crunchy bits which are less fun to write about than almost anything else.
4 – Many people will, if handed a blank page and told “Draw something” will lock up with uncertainty regarding what to draw, with the intensity of the lockup being directly proportional to their uncertainty and discomfort with the situations. Tell them to draw a dog, and much of the hesitations vanishes. Once again, constraints breed creativity.