The English language would make a terrible role-playing game. There are a lot of rules, many of them contradict each other, and in certain places there still isn’t enough detail to make the mechanics do what you really want. Some words, therefore, words we use frequently in some cases, are surprisingly hard to define. Imagine, if you will, that someone asks you why you play role-playing games. Many of us will answer such a question with our favorite aspect of the hobby, saying something like “I enjoy playing interesting characters” or “I enjoy making a story with my friends” or even “I enjoy the thrill of combat”. These can all be chased down, toddler-like, with another question, “why do you enjoy that?” When you’ve been run down by questions, how many of you will end on (for either accuracy or to get the questions to stop) “because it’s fun”?
To an uncritical observer, games are fun. The expression is “fun and games”, after all. But when you’re sitting down to play a game, any game, really, what is it that makes you “have fun?” When you look at how fun is defined, modern definitions coalesce around the concepts of diversion and amusement. Board games can fall into this modern definition without much trouble because they are structured as diversions; even the most intensive, strategic board game is intended to be something you can do to take your attention away from other things that are going on. It is, after all, why so many nerd parties have board games; they distract from the work of having to socialize.
Role-playing games don’t fit as well here, even in the logistical sense. Have you ever tried to have a “pick-up” role-playing game? I’m sure someone will comment and say they have, but broadly speaking they don’t exist. An RPG is something you coordinate, something you make time for. It’s not a diversion, and those games which work as diversions, games like Fiasco, use many board game structures to enable it. So if we can’t broadly define an RPG as a diversion, we then need to drill down into what it is about RPGs that we do for amusement, the other definition of fun.
I’ve played RPGs solely for my amusement. My long-running gaming group has a yearly tradition involving descending on a seaside town for a weekend of games, beer, and other shenanigans. The games we play are intended for fun, absolutely. We play new systems we’ve never tried before, play the same systems we do every year just because we expect it to be silly and over the top (looking at you, Paranoia), and design one-shots that go with our level of attention and alcohol consumption. This is where “RPG as diversion” does work perfectly, of course; the group takes four days out of their lives to not worry about anything going on in life besides the games, the company, and maybe the alcohol. It’s also a scenario that illustrates perfectly where the notion of fun falls apart. Sure, we played Paranoia and ran kooky one-shots with line-roll characters, but this was also the venue where we played the first session of High-Impact Heroics. Fun was not what drew us to Masks, but something altogether more compelling.
In a way, this is the buried lede: What is the difference between ‘fun’ and ‘compelling’? This is not a new discussion, historically it’s wrapped up in discussions of genre for film and literature. For role-playing games, the intersection between narrative and game confuses things; the other element that confuses things yet further is Dungeons and Dragons. Regardless of what Gary Gygax said, D&D is built around being a ‘fun’ game. Looting dungeons, killing monsters, casting spells, D&D was designed from the beginning with an escapist bent, one which served as a foil to the more self-serious wargaming crowds that Gygax and Arneson ran with. Now that it’s the most popular RPG in North America (and possibly the world), it colors if not taints the image that most people have of the RPG hobby. Even if within D&D itself more serious explorations of narrative are possible (they are if the players try hard enough), the image of the game minimizes those sorts of narrative as a desirable goal of play. Because of D&D’s market share, this makes games which aim for more compelling narrative appear to be less accessible, even though essentially all of the popular ones are easier to play than D&D.
I personally find that I spend most of my time trying to run compelling games rather than fun ones, and there are definitely traits which set these two items apart. Compelling games are more concerned with character development while fun games are more concerned with character abilities. Compelling games are more concerned with conflict while fun games are more concerned with combat (this is mechanically constrained but still broadly true). Compelling games are more concerned with events while fun games are more concerned with locations. Admittedly, fun/compelling for the most part is a false dichotomy, though there are definitely games which exist solely to generate narrative and dispense with all of the mechanics that are “there for fun”. The reverse may also be true, but I have a difficult time thinking of a role-playing game that can’t generate any compelling narrative; at that point you’re not only in board game territory but relatively deep in board game territory. The point is not to say that ‘fun’ and ‘compelling’ is a split or even a scale, rather they’re two elements of the role-playing game experience which are often (though not always) brought about through different aspects of a game’s rules.
So why is this useful? If there’s nothing black and white about games being fun or compelling, why bother bringing it up? While games themselves tend not to fall evenly on one side or the other, gamers do by virtue of playstyle and preference. Unsurprisingly, these two groups of gamers talk past each other. Games rooted in fun tend to be rooted in combat, only because the RPG itself evolved from wargames. Until very recently games which attempted to encourage narrative and character investment followed suit mechanically, often for no good reason. Ron Edwards’ writing on Vampire: the Masquerade is overbearing, but buried in there is a fair point about the gulf between what the game intended to do and what the mechanics enabled. As of 2020 there’s a lot more variety in the market, and your vampire game can be more about stakings or stories as you see fit. Your typical World of Darkness player may not see the appeal in Thousand Year Old Vampire, though, and vice versa.
The sort of fun most RPGs provide, through focus on combat, also creates an interesting conflict when trying to focus more on compelling narrative. The violence posited in D&D, is, when examined devoid of context, laughably gratuitous. It’s something we don’t think about much in an era when the original video game about mowing down demons by the hundreds recently made a celebrated comeback, admittedly. That said, if you’re trying to use an RPG as a mechanism by which you tell a story, the number of killings you perform looks very, very high. And this is where the fun/compelling discussion intersects with broader discussions about issues like race in RPGs: once you concede that you’re using the construct of race (even if that race is Orc) to lessen the stakes of the significant amount of violence in your game, you’re conceding conceptual racism in your narrative. In other media you could have gotten away with “the bad guys are red and the good guys are blue”, but the minute you’re also trying to have consistent and compelling narrative you’ve created a big problem.
The issues we see with ‘fun’ mechanics in games is rooted in the issues we see in violence as a game mechanic in any game. What I’d like to see, really, is more games that are based in mechanical engagement and, well, ‘fun’, but aren’t rooted in violence. What other core mechanics can we use to make a game interesting? In a way, this is why many people (including me) are so interested in things like exploration and domain mechanics in games, because they’re complex systems already investigated in an RPG context which aren’t strictly about violence. While the narrative RPG space has exploded, those of us who like gameable mechanics are left twiddling our skill checks unless we want to kill something.
To be clear, I’m not saying we should do away with violent games, be they RPGs or wargames or board games or even video games. I’m saying that RPGs are, for the most part, built around two superstructures: tell a story or kill stuff. The ‘fun’ that the system brings to the table (which is different than the fun you get being with friends or play-acting characters or telling in-jokes) is heavily predicated on killing stuff. As someone who likes engaging with interesting and complex mechanics, I’d like to see more of them out there that aren’t about killing things. Torchbearer has combat, but the resource management mechanics are robust and fun. The organization mechanics of Reign are fun. There’s clearly a range of things we can simulate or gamify to make a fun RPG, why not explore more of them? The narrative side of the table has seen an explosion over the last decade or so, and now we have games that can build the story of a lonesome vampire or a protective camp counselor or even a roadtrip. I love that I can tell these stories, I do. But I feel that to really engage with a game, I also want to play. I also want it to be fun. As I alluded to in the introduction, ‘fun’ is a really poorly defined word. I’m not sure I used it entirely consistently here, but I do feel like it’s a good indicator for what game mechanics, not just narrative, bring to the table. A good game is fun, it engages its players more than what we ourselves can come up with just by sitting around a table and talking. But the hobby needs fun mechanics that are as broad as the story structures that the modern indie movement is already providing.
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