Friday, September 11, 2015

Expanding The Understood Fate Paradigm

Earlier today +Anders Melsom expressed concern about Fate as an RPG, I will quote the relevant bits here, if you wish to see the full text here it is.
A game with the mechanics of Fate seems perfectly able to deal with faces and places from both real world history, contemporary themes and "High Literature". So why will we probably never see “Fate-Ibsen”, “Don Quixote Accelerated” or “In Search of Lost Time RPG"? You have to respect the least common denominators of our culture, some people would say, stick to the tropes. If you mention "Star Wars", “Harry Potter”, “Conan" or about any american tv-show, everybody gets it.

Is this an issue at all? Are all deviations from the norms of genre fiction doomed to be overly pretentious or just plainly boring? Does it smell of edutainment? Is playing "boyishly" all we really yearn for, staying in touch with the child within every man? Are Rpg's, Fate included, best left to deal with the debris of popular culture?

This led to quite a bit of spirited discussion, and got me thinking. Why is it that Genre and Popular Fiction dominates the RPG sphere. I think this is due to a few key things. First and foremost, the first RPGs were written by fans of science fiction and fantasy. In fact one could argue that RPGs had a direct involvement in the popularizing of certain tropes and subgenres(Cthulu Mythos, the Tolkien tropes, and certain kinds of science fiction). Basically early RPGs were designed and marketed by fans of genre fiction for fans of genre fiction. When stuff came along later, it fell into similar lines of thought, partially because it was accepted as the paradigm and partially because the only people designing RPGs were also fans of the tropes and genres that spawned RPGs in the first place.

The second thing driving this push toward genre is that Literary Fiction is difficult to construct into a game. Not impossible, mind you, just tricky.The introspection, slower pace, and lack of clear motivating goals all run counter to normal game design. In game design you spend a lot of time focusing on objective goals, tactics, logistics, and other external factors. Remember game design covers sports, tabletop games, and video games. All of which excel at direct feedback and objective thought. Games are skill based, to a variable extent. These things, in my opinion, run counter to a direct translation of the tropes of literary fiction. If you are going to design a game to do the tropes of literary fiction yo would need to bring the rules in obliquely, or add a layer of remove for the player. Again I am not saying that these things cannot be done, but they are things that can get in the way of trying to do this sort of game. Genre settings tend to have built in external conflicts and challenges, it is much easier to model a laser fight in a game than it is to model a man at war with himself, or making a great discovery about his own beliefs during his turbulent childhood.

The third reason for the disconnect is that literary fiction tends to focus on the individual and what the individual believes or feels. Now much genre fiction focuses on a single protagonist, its true. However if you look through it, the focus on external problems allows for fairly simple adjustment to multiple protagonists. Either you break up the problem into multiple parts or you multiply the problems. Again go back to the founding of RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons was based, in part, on Tolkien's fantasy works(The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). In those works you had groups of protagonists adventuring to solve a big problem. The tropes needed for the game were already waiting within the genre that first appeared. Also look to Traveller, which had the crew of a spaceship, the multiplicity of protagonists was already part of the setup. Then take your average piece of literary fiction, and the problem manifests itself. How do you make a single character into many when the problems are so personal? Again, I am not saying this is insurmountable, but it probably adds to the reasons why folks don't make more of these.

The final reason I can think of for why literary fiction style games are less prevalent that popular fiction style games is simple economics. If you are a game designer and you want you game to reach the maximum number of players you will design the game to appeal to as many people as possible. Popular fiction, which is often genre fiction, tends to be more popular than literary fiction. Literary fiction often gets great acclaim and prestige by the critics and the hoi olligoi, but tend to do poorly in sales. Heck, there are reasons why they have to force children to read them in high school. Literary fiction is not popular and thus has a smaller group who would be interested in it. Thus those games that do fit into this category either have a small audience or must mask the nature of the game beneath a pop culture veneer.

So we come to Fate. Fate really could do literary fiction. With its focus on characters and the personality and beliefs of those characters, it seems like a perfect fit. Yet here we stand with very little show for it. Mostly we get interesting mash ups that would fit into the pulp style adventure fiction, or modern genre fiction. I think there is room for development in this direction and I think Evil Hat has already given us a blue print for a possible direction. No Exit, and adventure written for Worlds in Shadow, is a fascinating look into magical realism and dealing with real world issues. It is set as a horror piece, but not the standard slasher fare. This is a game that asks you to look into your character and what motivates that character. It places you in hell, but not fire and brimstone. This is a subtle damnation of your own making. The best part is that it does all of this without altering the core mechanics of Fate very much. It's like Dante's Inferno through the lens of House of Leaves. While it is the only piece in Fate, that I am aware of, that might fit into the literary motif, it is certainly a stellar beginning. If you wanted to make a literary Fate game, I see no real impediment to it, other than talent and desire to create it. But those exist as impediments to any creative endeavor.

All that said, there has been a major upswing in the indie game world and thus a lot of really fascinating games have come out that I think would fit into this sphere.

  • Grey Ranks: It is a fantastically dark game about a real event and real people. If you haven't checked it out, do so. 
  • Wraith: The Oblivion: Remember when I spoke of hiding deeply literary works under the veneer of genre. I was talking about this game(and a couple others that I will get to). While I always enjoyed White Wolf games, this is the one I disliked playing but loved reading. It is super depressing and fascinating, with genius mechanics that really reinforce the introspective nature and make the rest of the group involved in that introspection. Again, if you don't have a copy get one. Oh look they had a kickstarter for a new edition...I feel like it will be awesome.
  • Smallville: I know, right! I know. It is a super hero game, and it is also a TV show game, what the hell is it doing here? Well hold your horses and I will explain. Sheesh! I put this here because the mechanics could very easily be modified for a wonderful game of people interacting, making poor choices, and either learning from their mistakes or failing to. +Cam Banks designed a real firecracker of a conflict engine here, and I think that with a bit of work it would do a phenomenal job at doing exactly what was asked. 
  • Everyone is John: I have not read or played this game, but it did inspire me to write Whispers in the Dark. How you ask? Well I had heard the basic premise and the ideas for how it worked just tickled me. From what I understand this game would do a fine job of handling the desired game style. 
  • Pendragon: Oh man, seriously. Just get this game. Right now. Seriously. It was so ahead of the curve that it is still ahead of the curve. Greg Stafford is both the Akira Kurosawa and the Stanley Kubrick of Roleplaying games. And no, I have no idea what that means. Other than it means that this is a gaming masterpiece that focuses on family and emotions in a way that is ludicrously beautiful. It uses the legends of Arthur and his knights to tell deeply personal stories and also to tell stories about time and the nature of glory and honor. I am not doing it justice. Just go read it, then go play it. You'll see what I am saying. 
There are probably loads more that I am unaware of or that I forgot in the haze of writing this post. If you can think of any, put in in the comments. It will be a like a game. A game about games. It will be a metagame, our Metagame. Heh.