If you are really interested in game design, you do not have to search far or hard for inspiration on the net. There are loads of free for download material, and a huge quantity of indie products that are very affordable.
Sadly, many of them are just alternative rules to handle tasks. From experience I know that to whatever set of rules you are officially playing you add a whole bunch of house-rules, often even before you are start playing. To design and play these games (both miniatures and roleplaying) you have to have a healthy imagination. And I’d go further and say that you must have something of a bloated ego. You want to be some kind of god, living another life, pulling the strings in a world that you are master of. You want to be in control of the laws of nature. We all make up rules. All the time. Regardless, perhaps in spite of or maybe because of, the designer’s affair with his own rule, we quite casually modify them to suit ourselves in our own homes. Once in print, the designer may feel as though he has had the final word on task resolution, completely forgetting the tinkering he himself did in order to get something that worked for him, and ignoring that everyone else will continue to tinker. His has now just become another published opinion, and not a fact.
And the key thing that the majority of these rules do is, well, list rules. The number of character generation tools out there is mind boggling. The number of ways of rolling dice and adding or subtracting factors – just so you can determine if a sword or cutting word had effect – is daunting. Are they necessary? Do we really need another way to find out who won a combat? In a stochastic (using randomisation) system, it’s just a matter of subtlety: this system rolls d6 and adds 2, that system rolls d20 and adds 5, another system flips a card. So what?
The question I am asking is this: do these differences in task resolution really differentiate one game from another?
And I’d say, no. To me one task resolution system is much the same as another. FATE is great but rolling a d20 is also good enough if the games you play are so immersive that you never draw your sword anyway. You just talk it out. The best part of (FUDGE)/FATE is the system of Aspects – a wide-open unqualifyable guideline. You do not need rules to govern what I call the most important part of a game – the shared negotiation of a fantasy experience. The same is true for wargaming, strangely enough, especially if you play at the skirmish level. If most of your activity on the table is moving, sneaking, interrogating and generally investigating rather than discharging firearms then the rare time you roll renders the dice resolution system the least important part of the game. If it is too cumbersome you house-rule it down, regardless of what the rules say.
The actual rules on how to do things, then, are neither absolute, interesting, and usually not very original. I skim read them.
So what is the most important part of a game that you might what to download, pay for or even play?
Whether it sparks your imagination or not.
I am not stimulated to want a game by the news that you roll d6, add this and that, for an Assault Rifle that adds +2, has long range, and Select Fire. So what?
I am motivated by the phrase, ‘Some great wizard’s magical messenger, brass-skinned.’ I do not know what it means, and I want to find out. I will use whatever mechanical rules come to hand to get to the solution.
Many indie games have elements that do this. Most, perhaps all, indie games then succumb to the urge to write mechanical rules and the best bit becomes submerged. The Mythic Games Master Emulator is a work of beauty. We use it a lot. The Mythic role-playing rules are ‘so-what?’ The turn resolution system and stick measurement systems of Ganesha Games are by far the best, simplest and most important elements of that system. The Oracles of In a Wicked Age are tremendously evocative. Sadly they are too few, and appear as an afterthought after all the character generation and task resolution material. But at least Vincent recognised that this was important and included it in the price – and I was happy to pay it. The Instant Game leads with the right stuff in the scenario maker, but then spends pages on character design and task resolution, something that, statistically, most people would use d20 for these days. Terra Incognita, based on FATE, charges for the character generation and task resolution system, but gives the scenario generator away for free; which, to me, seems a lot like a price tag on a box and leaving the chocolates in a ‘help yourself’ basket at the counter.
There is something psychological at work here. We all seem to feel the need to devise the ‘rules’ of our pocket universe. But I say that the rules write themselves. More important is to populate the feel; the art; the colour; the mystery of the place. The awful temptation, when writing our indie vision – the true artistic expression that is worthwhile, is to get sucked down into the mire of rules. It is almost as if we throw open the gates to a treasure trove, and then immediately put up a list of laws about how you are allowed to approach.
Less rules in indie rules, I say. We have enough rules to sink a ship, already. More evocative setting descriptions, and scenario generation tools is what really inspires.