A’right. Last time, I sort of hinted that the biggest problem with the World of Darkness’ rules, when it comes to winning over the kind of crowd who you’d think would buy a game about pretending to be a sexy badass vampire/werewolf/witch like a shot, isn’t that there are too many of them but that the too-many-rules that the World of Darkness have are focused on something which is not the point of the game. Now, you may have to bear with me with this one, but let me go out on a limb here and talk about the kind of roleplayer I think the World of Darkness games should be targeting.
There are people out there for whom context is everything. Just being a badass in a big, complicated action sequence is not enough for them. They want to know this badass; they want to know why this badass is so badass; they want to know why the fight is happening and why it matters; they want a stake in what’s happening. For them, an action sequence is fun and important not for its own sake but because of what’s happened to either side. Before, there’s the character interactions in which they’ve built up a person and integrated them with their environment and SUDDENLY DEATH IS LOOMING and they have to have a fight scene or a chase scene or a race-against-time-to-build-the-science-machine scene to get out of danger. Afterwards, there’s the character interactions in which the fight has consequences, and I don’t mean the “we need to buy more bullets and suck more blood” consequences; I mean the “I’m a scientist and a bureaucrat and not a fighter and I’ve just been shot in the arm!” kind of consequences or the “what you just did was insanely dangerous and could have gotten you/us/the local ecosystem killed!” kind of consequences.
There are people out there for whom the modelling of the action sequence with rolls for this, that and the other, guaranteed to ensure fairness and increase tension and accurately simulate the aspects of sustained violence, is an absolute and chronic waste of time. They have maybe three or four hours to play their roles, and they don’t really want to spend half of that trudging through a brief exchange of punches, especially if one side of the exchange happens to be characters who aren’t theirs, who are never going to be interacted with again, and who are only there to create danger in the short term. Who cares about being fair to mooks? Sure, a big villain might be something a bit different, but a big villain is likely to be someone’s actual character, because you see…
There are people out there for whom the playing of games is inherently and automatically a troupe activity. Sure, there might be someone who knows the rules a bit better and has taken on the responsibility of teaching others to play, for a while, but that person might be a different person for a different game, or even for a different aspect of the game. There might be one person who takes the lead in action sequences because they’re good at parsing and responding quickly and keeping track of what everyone’s doing and what’s going on; there might be one person who’s driving the narrative for tonight because they’re the one who’s thought up tonight’s adventure; there might be one person whose character is generally in charge of things and so acts as the party’s leader – but these are unlikely to be the same person and none of them is likely to be a designated, regular, all-the-time Master of Games. For those who are familiar with Ars Magica or other take-it-in-turns-to-be-the-GM RPGs, take that as your starting point and then maybe swap GMs between stages of a session, so the person who’s best at rules runs the combat and the person who’s best at improvisation runs the NPCs.
There are people out there who trust each other’s shared sense of narrative – they’ve read/seen/played enough of the same stuff to have a mutual idea of what’s going on, and crucially they’ve discussed what they’ve read/seen/played, not necessarily in terms of how X is better than Y or how Z contradicts A, but in terms of what actually happens and how characters felt about things and how stories are told. They have – forgive me – had feels, and have shared those feels and discussed what made them have feels. The point is that these people don’t necessarily need rules to arbitrate the bang-bang you-missed nuh-uh aspects of roleplaying, because they’ll generally agree that what’s important isn’t how hard your character is hit, but how your character reacts to it, and that’s theirs to decide – not the clunky mechanical system.
There are people out there who’ve roleplayed with “roll this high to inflict that many hit points, roll under this and you get hit for this many” mechanics, and multiple turns within one combat, and opposed attack/defence mechanics, and been bored within the end of one round, and asked “couldn’t we just have rolled once and whoever rolled highest was the coolest and whoever rolled lowest got hurt”? And afterwards, they asked me “is this what D&D is like?” in tones of mild horror, and I frantically scrambled around saying “no it doesn’t have to be it can be what we normally do too”…
… but if you picked up the rulebook and flicked through it, you’d have a hard time realising that RPGs aren’t just roll-fests, because honestly, there’s a lot of rules and restrictions and telling you how things work in most RPGs. The way that fandom people tell stories doesn’t seem to line up with the way RPGs – like, say, the World of Darkness – tell stories. They can line up, they do line up, but only if you ignore most of the rules in the book, and use damn near everything else; but if you’re doing that, what’s the point of owning the rules or saying you’re playing the game in the first place?
You may be wondering why on Earth I’m even asking the titular question any more, having presented a target audience who don’t really need rules in order to roleplay, but here’s the crucial bit of insanity that it’s necessary to wrap your noggin around; just because people don’t need rules doesn’t mean they don’t need a game. The people who I’ve been describing have the same adult problems that so many of us have. The roleplaying game doesn’t so much have to act as a series of restrictions on how to play let’s pretend; its greatest value is as an excuse to play let’s pretend in the first place.
Pretending to be elves and wizards, playing with your toys, telling people this cardboard box is a rocket car, and doing all this just sort of generally around the place is the sort of thing you do when you’re a child and are encouraged not to do when you’re an adult; saying “ahh, but we’re playing an actual game, which adults made, and which we paid money for!” legitimises the activity, makes it something grown-ups can do. We don’t need the game’s machinery for its own sake (although it can come in handy for simulating things we don’t want to do, or for resolving disputes) – we need the pretence of serious rules-having adult-worthy activity to help us get over ourselves and put us into a frame of mind where we can allow ourselves to be childish without feeling awkward and guilty.