Thursday, June 13, 2013

Perspective and the Economics of Heroism

The role of the GM is beginning to blur a little. I am sure that there are some people who may disagree and this is just a broad generalization, but classically the role of the GM was part storyteller, part arbitrator and part director. The GM was firmly planted in the driver’s seat and controlled the plot and all elements of his/her sandbox or game world. The player was merely along for the ride and made choices that certainly impacted the story, but for the most part played a far more passive role in the greater narrative of the game.

Games like Fate and a few others change this definition. These RPG’s put the player at the controls along with the GM in a cooperative storytelling framework. Some people love this and some hate it, but whatever side of the fence you are on, we have to admit that this style of game is changing the way people look at roleplaying.

Personally this aspect is not much of a change for me. I like my players to have an active role in the storytelling aspects of my game. My “Game on the Fly” post is pretty much about letting my players guide me when I am too lazy to do game prep. Outside of my own laziness, having the players contribute to the story makes them feel more involved and I like to reward active participation. I just end up with a better game and better entertainment all around that way.

There are other aspects to these games that are perhaps even more controversial. When I look at it from a certain perspective most of these concepts are actually old hat.

Success at a cost

The gripe:  “It allows players to gimmick the game mechanic to never fail. Without the chance of failure or player death there can never be tension. It makes the Game part of the Role Playing Game moot since there is no real way to lose.”

Poppycock! This game element has existed for ever and just about everyone has done it. No? You have never done it or even seen it done? Sure you have. Have you ever spent a luck, benny, fate, fortune, karma, edge, character or force point for a re-roll or a bonus? How about having the party resurrect your character after being killed by that badass gibbering mouther? All of these devices have players spend a very limited resource to tip the scales to the benefit of the player. Therefore, you pay a cost for a better chance of success. The only real difference is that Fate demands a narrative context for the use of this mechanic instead of the simple application of an arbitrary rule.

Even the ultimate sacrifice can be averted by a trip to your local temple of Pelor. A grip load of gold pieces in gems (didn't expect Pelor to be that into the bling) and the cost of some XP and you are back and running. This is in absolute terms averting death at a cost right? It is the same thing, different name and added gruesome logistics.

The fact of the matter is that no good GM wants to see the players fail or die uselessly. I am sure that there are some GMs that run their games for that purpose. I have played in that kind of game and have found that it is usually only fun for one person. The point of the exercise is to create the illusion of possible failure or death well enough to produce tension. The Fate system just puts some of the labor of creating this tension in the hands of the player and not totally on the GM. The player manages the resources that define heroism and he/she bears the onus of accepting the consequences of failure, which is intrinsic to being a hero. It puts the economics of heroism up front and makes it part of the actual narrative. These economics invariably exist in RPG’s with or without a narrative element.


The gripe: “You cannot replace Attributes with Aspects. It allows players to gimmick the game and get bonuses to whatever they want.”

Balderdash! Aspects have existed for ever. Once again it’s a question of perspective. Take for example making a character with an exceptional attribute.  Let’s go further and say that it’s a randomly determined exceptional attribute like the much loved 18/00 from classic Dungeons and Dragons.

This is an Aspect. No? It sure as hell is a (if not THE) defining characteristic. It becomes a description “Clogar was a massive brute of a man with huge muscles”. It can be used as a justification for things “Clogar flexes his mighty thews in an attempt to cow the goblin to surrender”. Systemically it creates an advantage over another character with a 18/22 Strength, but the advantage is arbitrary and therefore lacks relevance to the character as a hero. A hero is not a list of numbers. Heroism is defined by how these attributes are used.

How about class or archetype? Cleric, Fighter, Mage, Rocker, Street Samurai, these are all Aspects. They define a character, outline powers and abilities as well as access to resources other characters could not justify. For example “Sigmund is a cleric of Pelor. Is there a local temple? I want a safe place to rest for the night.”

Things like classes and attributes serve not only to provide context for the characters abilities, but give us a clear understanding of the characters role and identity. The same thing goes for Aspects. The three key differences being that Aspects are A) capable of being tailored to create individuals that are distinct from other characters that may otherwise have the same attributes and/or class B) are mutable so a character can develop and change as he/she grows C) gives the player a stock in trade in the economics of heroism.

Clogar can have the Aspect “Strength of the Titans”, but must Invoke it or use it to create an advantage somehow. The mechanic already exists in other games, but is expressed differently. A Wizard has to memorize spells or a Fighter gets to use his/her daily power at the right moment, the player has to think about how he/she is going to use his heroic currency within the economy. The main variance is that the Player and the GM get to define what the characters abilities are within the framework of these Aspects instead of being limited to someone else’s definition of a class, attribute, etc. detailed in endless volumes of supplements and player aids. What was TSR’s old motto? Products of your imagination. Indeed. Sometimes it feels like a certain lack of accountability. If a game sucks you can always blame the system since it governs most aspects of the game. If the game comes from a place where it's 90% your own creation leaves you with little excuse.

I could go on to describe Stunts as being the same as Feats, Powers or Spells, but I think I already made my point. In broad terms, Fate does not really bring anything truly new to the table as far as mechanics go. What it does bring is a fresh perspective to these game elements. It treats the art of RPGs as exactly that an art or a form of creative expression. It does this at the expense of what I consider to be the roots or RPGs which are firmly planted in the firmament of wargaming. This shift in perspective is at the core of the debate.

Wargames require balance and structure. Not to say that Fate does not have structure, but the focus of this structure is dedicated to fostering creativity and not balance. This can be truly scary to some people who need this balance in order to build adventures. Once again it’s a matter of perspective and determining the goal of a Role Playing Game.

Buy into the Economics of Heroism. This is the true game within the game. Balance and structure come from the flow of this currency and making sure that the price for Heroism is just high enough to make your players feel like they did something worthwhile. No matter what system you are playing or what rules set define the characters actions, it is up to the GM and the players to set a gold standard for adventure by making sure that everyone pays the right price for victory. That should be the focus of your drama and should be managed thoughtfully instead of being sacrificed on the altar of game balance.

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