The Rules and The Fiction

This past weekend I got together with a bunch of folks from the Los Angeles story games crew I hang out with and played some games. We gather every few months at Game Empire in Pasadena and break out RPGs and Board Games. I saw a lot of familiar faces I’m happy to see, and met some folks I’d never met before. (If you’re interested in tracking down details for local area events, go check out NerdSoCal.)

Several games were played, including Spione, In a Wicked Age…, Spirit of the Century, Conquer the Horizon, My Life With Master, and the boardgame Pandemic.

I arrived a little late due to a meeting earlier that day, but managed to jump into a game of Spione while Jesse and Laura were breaking out the rules to everyone (other players will Will, Joshua, and Vasco). After some Korean BBQ down the street for lunch, we returned and I played in a game of In a Wicked Age… GM’d by Vasco and with Laura as my fellow player.

The Spione game really didn’t grab me, and the In A Wicked Age… game did. Really did. Like, we’re planning on continuing the game with a new chapter at the local game convention at the end of the month.

Now, I’m not going to be doing an actual play here. Nor am I going to be directly discussing the merits of either Spione or In A Wicked Age…. First, I’ve never read Spione and have only played it once, as a one shot, in a game store, with what might have been too many people. Second, there’s only one point I want to address right now by comparing the two experiences.

In the Spione game my brain was fiddling really hard with the rules. I was trying to grasp what to do; how come the sheet with info I needed to brainstorm scenes always seemed so far away; whether I was trying to cross characters off the info sheets, or get the agents Into the Cold; whether when Ron used the word “annulment” at one point in the book he really meant what Jesse said he meant; and so on…

The game’s fiction seemed somewhat haphazard, with details created out like a very wild Jazz improv set than a story. By that I mean, what had been established before wasn’t built on, new details were added that kept spreading the story out rather than forward, and some details were added the were so obscure in their meaning or intent that usually four or five other players would just stop, cocking their heads like confused puppies trying to figure out what the person narrating meant. I mostly just wanted to get to the cards, cause the cards were cool and the cards seemed to focus everyone’s brains on specific image, color and action — which I found much more pleasing than the wandering scene work we tossed out.

Some of these qualities may or may not be features of Spione, simply handled badly. Some of these qualities may have something to do with the the issue I want to address here:

When people pick up a new game (and I’m including myself here under the category of “people”) we tend to focus on the rules. The rules we pick up (especially around here) are full of new, interesting mechanics and do-hinkey’s and we tend to make the play about the rules.

This perfectly understandable, of course. When you first get on a bicycle as a kid, the focus is on how to peddle fast enough to keep going, how to balance, keeping your feet on the pedals. You’re not thinking, “Ah, I can use this device to transport myself to new place cross town.” Your focus is: “How do I make this thing work!?!?”

Same with writing or painting or martial arts or whatever. There’s always an awkward phase where handling the tools and applying techniques dominates the brain. You’re not really making something. You’re using the tools of a craft or art or discipline to learn how the heck to use the tools or craft or discipline.

So it was for me at the Spione game. And I don’t think I was alone in this. There was some flailing. The fictional element left me cold and unconcerned and disengaged. But given where I (and other) were in our relationship to the rules, that made perfect sense.

I compare this now to the In A Wicked Age… game.

On the way home all I could think about was taking the narrative details we had created from the session and typing them up in the style of a Robert E. Howard short story. (I had to drive from Pasadena to Santa Monica, so I had plenty of time to let my mind roll ideas around…!)

When I say typing them up in the style of Robert E. Howard, I mean that that the story felt like a Robert E. Howard story. I also mean that I would probably lay the short story out scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat as we created them during the game. Our game play simply produced a story. I would keep many lines of dialogue and many bits of description stolen from out mouths. (My favorite bit of description was Laura, while describing the walls of a crypt as “…walls which had never seen light before…” as her spirit illuminated itself after bargaining with a wizard and getting free. I mean, that’s just good writing — evocative, in the moment, and implying a ton of world and backstory details with just a few words.)

Anyway, here’s the thing. The first time I played In A Wicked Age… was months ago at a local con — and it played a lot like the Spione game. Everyone focused on the rules. We threw out color left and right. It was great color, and I even had a great time, but it was somewhat chaotic. And the game seemed to be fun in spite of the mechanics.

Vasco was the GM of that game as well. And in the months since I have seen him make an Olympic worthy effort to MASTER THE RULES OF IN A WICKED AGE... I mean, really. He’s been talking about it. Scouring the forum boards. Working his way through (in my view) Vincent’s somewhat patchwork quilt prose style where he seems more interested in being casual and relaxed in how he writes — at the expense of any concern about expressing clearly any specific idea he’s trying to communicate.

He has worked the game.

And after the Spione game I was determined not to focus on the rules first, but to make the fiction a priority. This meant that whenever the rules baffled me (and they do!) I simply turned the reigns over to Vasco and said, “Just tell me when it’s time for me to describe something, and tell me when it’s time for me to roll dice.”

That didn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to the rules. Nor was there any handwaving or “just making it up.” We used the rules. Hard. I fought to get my guy on the We Owe list. I I did! And I was excited about that! It really was cool to watch this emergent property of the rules about “Who is the protagonist?” not only rise from play, but inform the fiction and generate excitement from me. It was cool. I saw a lot more about how the game was built and why it was built.

Which brings me to the big point:

The In A Wicked Age… game rocked because everyone focused on the fiction first. The rules served as a bicycle to get us across town. We weren’t focused on pedaling (though sometimes I did grind things to a halt and say, essentially, “I don’t understand how to ride this thing. Explain this rule to me,”). Instead, we were focused on what we were using the bicycle to do — to get cross-town, to create a cool story.

My guess is the same thing could have happened with the Spione game if — as a group and as individuals — we had focused on making the story first, and figuring out how the rules supported that agenda. I’m not sure about that. But I think it’s true. And I think it’s very true that at some point every group and player has to decide this about these crazy story games: Is your focus the rules with some story, or story facilitated by the rules?

Because, and here’s the trick, no rules set can ever make story. They can get out of the way of story. And they can have very well designed points of focus for players that engender story (the We Owe list from In A Wicked Age… for example, or Kickers from Sorcerer. But just like a bike will just sit there without dedication and a destination from a rider, the game won’t produce anything but game play unless a goal beyond using the rules is chose.

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