The question of “What is the absolute least game necessary?” is a really interesting one to me, since the answer is a sort of progression.
The first answer is a mechanical one, and the answer is something like Risus, where everything boils down to a simple mechanical expression of an idea. The second answer is to go “no game!”, and just tell stories, but that gets it interesting wrong. “No game” only works on top of a set of assumptions, and the only questions is whether those assumptions are spoken or unspoken.
These assumptions might affect the form of activity (no cancellation, yes and, take turns) or it might involve assumptions about the content of the story (this is a Superman story, and we both know how Superman works). Ideally, it’s a bit of both.
That latter part is fascinating to consider, but difficult to discuss. If you’re a Superman nerd, then you may have already asked yourself “but which Superman?”. And that’s a valid question – if you’re thinking Man of Steel and I’m thinking Bruce Timm, then our shared understanding is rather lacking in understanding.
Thinking about it this way has undercut my understanding of why we have mechanics. Historically, I have thought as mechanics as primarily representational, and secondarily communication. To put that in concrete terms, we give superman a Strength stat of, say, 100. 100 strength means, say, “able to lift a skyscraper”. That 100 strength represents a specific value, and I can then use that to determine other relative values – If Superman has a 100 Strength, then Aquaman has a 50 strength, and can throw a car.
This representation becomes value when I think of a new character and I think to myself “he can throw a truck, so he’s stronger than Aquaman, but not as Strong as Superman, let’s say Strength 60”. But then it gets taken in a very different direction when we invert the logic, and say “ok, I have spent 60 points on strength – how strong does that make me?”
If we go in the other direction, the reason we give Superman a 100 Strength is so that you can I can have a discussion as to how strong Superman is, and by assigning a value, we (hopefully) bring our understanding in line. Now, when we tell this story about Superman, we’re on the same page. In this context, the purpose of system is to reach understanding.
Now, the facile thing to say here would be to say “System doesn’t matter, understanding matters” but that would be very short sighted. There is a lot more to game design than just the representational slice, and system does lots of other things.
But if understanding is a conscious priority, it changes the role of system. It also lays bare a lot of the technical elements at work when someone says that a good GM is less reliant on system – in this particular context, a good GM is one who has a refined understanding of her player’s perspective and direction.
All of which comes back to the question of the least amount of game necessary. If the GM is (successfully) filling in the understanding step, then you may well need no further game. But that also may make you all more enthusiastic to engage what system you use because you can see it clearly. That is, you seek the system that can improve things for your great GM. Like a great craftsman, the GM doesn’t need all the fancy tools to do the work, but given the choice, the tools she will use are the best ones (for her).
Practically, this is on my mind as I have been thinking about whether or not dice modifiers are necessary at all. Imagine a system where you roll a single df. On a + things go well, on a 0 they go ok, on a – they go poorly. Let’s say we have a game with Superman and Batman. If everyone involved has a shared understanding, then we don’t need to give them Strength stats – Superman is stronger, and even if he rolls poorly, that remains true. Batman is never going to smash a mountain with his fist, no matter who well he rolls. It is only a lack of understanding that demands stats.
So the question is, of course, how else to come to understanding?
- Technically, I want two or three values to get that relative value. Suppose Supes has that 100 strength and a normal person has a “1”. That suggests a different scheme than if a normal person has a “10”. It’s hard to understand a progression from a single point, but that’s a little tangential. ↩
- Perhaps not by coincidence, Fred and I have both been experimenting with games with our very young children that are in this general space. ↩