Thursday, March 12, 2009

Keep it Simple... Yet let Creativity and Imagination Soar

I thought that an article I wrote for Crusader Magazine several years ago might be of interest for those who have not read it.

Mimir's Well

Games As Fun?
© 2009 Robert J. Kuntz.

by Rob Kuntz

Imagine this...

The first day you discovered games. Really discovered them. Like: Wow, this stuff is great! Where can I get a copy? Remember that day? You were hooked. There was a feeling of never ever having been there before and an equal feeling of wanting to find that road again. To walk, nope, run along it pell-mell. You couldn't wait, remember?

Now imagine this...

The first day you discovered FRPG. It was like someone had let the floodgates loose, right? So much at once and not enough at the same time. And as a new participant it was all strange but exciting. There were hints of dragons, treasures and undiscovered lands. Strange places where you could roam, where your imagination was to be given a range of expression. Someone was asking for your input instead of you just rolling dice and moving about a track! How wonderful! Then they plopped lots of rules down and you remember groaning... But it was just so strange and wonderful that you continued despite the numerous rules (which you learned to choose from, condense, or change to your liking, anyway, god bless those designers with foresight).

Now, let us proceed with a surmise...

You stare at a game-store's shelf replete with myriad choices of games to purchase. What you want is condensed fun in FRPG form. It must come with minimal instructions, allow you to provide the additives, such as using your imagination to add to it and learn and enjoy as you interface with its rules set. The learning curve must be simple but have breadth. The only obstacle would be in finding other fellows who want to enjoy a simple game like you do. It sounds too good, you say? Why yes, it is; but that's what a good RPG is all about isn't it? Simple, unadulterated, fun in a style reminiscent of the days of FRPG in all its golden glory.

Let us rewind a bit...

Before there were massive rules sets to define the military actions of regimental-sized combats, a fellow by the name of H. G. Wells created a simplistic game called "Little Wars". I had a chance to play LW at a convention one year, and oh boy, was it fun! Toothpicks shot from spring-loaded cannons! It took me back to my days of youth, which some say we cannot recapture. While some games today have progressed beyond this point and have matured the hobby, some others have also mutated the idea of a game, and thus gaming, into drudgery. Somewhere in between games being too simple (rock-paper-scissors) or ultra-complex (insert your War and Peace-sized game here) is where the maximum "fun factor" lies, hidden like a treasure waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by all.

Some folks might challenge the idea that in keeping a game simple--especially an RPG--that you maximize its fun factor. But in the realm of FRPG, imagination is King. Without it there is no game, notwithstanding the rules used. FRP games are only as good as the people who play them. Then too those same players are only as good as their expressed imaginations. No rulebook can cover everything in life, and thus we find this constant reflected in the earliest and most successful FRP games. If there was a rule for everything in such games for your imagination, then we would soon find less reason to participate in the game, less incentive to find our own creative range, and we would certainly derive less enchantment from the experience. The very things we wish to cultivate would thus be driven from us or voided.

In other words, RPG rules should guide only. Participants should ultimately decide on direction, intensity and types of rules to be utilized. Some are basic, the types you need to actually play the game in its most simplistic and skeletonized form. Beyond that you have the additives which allow for everyone involved in its ongoing process to use to their liking. This is the base idea on which our industry was built and which Gary Gygax promulgated in his earliest written works. Simple. Fun. Mutable. This core idea has lost none of its former potency or flavor, but is in fact beginning to resurface in many games, such as in TLG's forthcoming Castles & Crusades.

Back to the present...

Many designers today, like myself, have to take hard looks at their proposed works while answering base questions every time: Is what I'm writing/designing going to be fun to play? What is the learning curve for the players? How is it different or better? Moreover, does it remain a game or just a bunch of rules piled on top of each other? These are games, not realistic portrayals or some new form of art. These are fun-filled escapades into the imaginations of those playing them. So, yes, they must contain guidelines which help us on our way to enjoy and participate in a process, but these should not limit the range of each players imaginative expression. That's where enchantment roots and is expressed through participating in the story, not in some dice roll which is only the tool of the player for determining outcomes during that process. Likewise each game designer is faced with avoiding endless details or page upon page of litanous description which ultimately bores the participants. We must always remember that we escape the real world for that dose of enchantment for the time in which we are playing. Does the game then present roads easily taken to find the fun, the enchantment, or are there unnecessary hurdles involved?


"Keep it Simple Stupid." An old saying, but one which should be remembered by game designers and GMs. Finding this balance is a chore. It's an adventure in itself. But we have indicators, and they face us during play each and every time--the players. I'll guarantee that your players are having fun if they're working their imaginations as opposed to endlessly rolling dice and moving about the "track" of the game. It'll be revealed in their looks, by their excited interjections and by their intensities. It can be described as being enchanted, but in the end, it's just a whole barrel o' fun.

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