Fate, and Other Non-D&D Games
Rambling writing, few conclusions, open to discussion
A tweet passed by a few days ago which said something about the Critical Role crew playing Monsterhearts and “doing it wrong” because they played it in the D&D style where Matt was creating the world and running the story instead of the collaborative style that’s actually intended, and it blew my mind a little. Not really because I think there’s any value to that point of view - you’re only playing a game wrong if you don’t enjoy it, and the game designer is just as dead as the author - but because it hadn’t really occurred to me (at a visceral level; I’ve read it over and over again without grokking it) that there are styles of play that are endemic to particular games. So I want to explore that concept a bit.
This is despite a number of years of trying to run Fate games (Legends of Anglerre in particular) and feeling like they weren’t working right, because we were trying to play them like D&D. It didn’t help that we were trying to transition characters and settings from D&D into Fate; that made us effectively hang on to a lot of the structures of the other game even though they weren’t there anymore. But mostly, I think, we just plain didn’t know how to play a different game.
A few years ago - I think it was just before I started to play 5th Edition D&D - I listened to an actual play podcast of, not coincidentally, Monsterhearts, called Feelings First. That was, I’m pretty sure, my first encounter with collaborative gaming as it’s intended. It was magnificent. It really pointed out to me how much of the game could - and should - be defined by players in collaborative play. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since, on and off, and thinking about the tensions between that style of play, the more traditional reactive play of D&D, and the input I’m seeing from the improv scene into gaming.
Improv, let me say, isn’t my thing. It doesn’t have continuity, which is my Big Thing in narrative, and it’s very often focused on comedy, which doesn’t do anything for me in isolation. I don’t mind a story or a setting being funny, but it has to have something deeper to it, and most comedy just doesn’t. But improv provides a lot of tools that can make tabletop RPGs better. The concept of “yes, and” (and its companions and corollaries, “yes, but”, “no, but” and “no, and”) is immensely useful in GMing, for all that it exists in opposition to the idea that the world is formed and the characters are exploring it.
There’s a lot of “yes, and” in Monsterhearts. And a lot of “no, and”, as well. But that still has to exist within the rules - loose as they are - of the game and the setting. This is making me think that the core of collaborative play here isn’t happening in the actual moment-to-moment of the game, but in the shared awareness of the setting. The Feelings First players all had a solid concept of what the world was like, and they each described their parts of it with near equal input. I really like that idea, and it results - in this case, at least - in really good, character-driven drama. You can’t do that the same way in D&D. Well, you could probably try, and I’m sure some groups have done it, but it’s not what the game is built for.
Equally, there’s a thing in the D&D-style game that I really like, which I currently call “setting discovery”. I’m pretty sure that this concept has been central to nearly every campaign I’ve run - the players and the characters find out at the same time how some of the essential mysteries of the setting resolve. And this is aided by the way in which I create settings; for every fact that rolls out to the players (whether it’s in-game description, or, per the last issue, in text) there’s some secret, some bit of information that doesn’t go out at the same time. Sometimes they’re very simple things which wouldn’t be graced with the term “secret”, such as that the goblins who always have interesting things to sell are getting them from a bunch of kobolds who found an ancient junk pile; other times they’re bigger things, such as an erstwhile ally of the players actually being the root and cause of the thing they’re investigating. And sometimes there’s a really big, campaign-driving secret, like “the world has an overgod, and he’s working to prevent his other-self/sister from taking over the universe”.
And I think you can’t do that - or perhaps, better, it’s not fair to try to do that - in a collaborative game. Even in something like Microscope, trying to use secrets to propel the game isn’t going to work well. See also games like Gumshoe, in which the core idea is that the clues in an investigative mystery (which is a secret) aren’t accessed via game mechanics, but just given to the players/characters. This gets around the thing whereby an Investigation roll that comes up badly in D&D can prevent plot-necessary information from reaching the players. The main focus is on the interpretation of the clues and the resolution of the mystery, and combat and direct conflict aren’t emphasised.
So it’s kind of no wonder our Fate games didn’t quite work. I’d definitely like to try more collaborative games, but I think it’d be pretty essential that first, they’re not in D&D-based settings, and second, that I’m not running them, because I have 30+ years of “bad habits” which I can’t quickly unlearn.
There’s also the point, of course, that some players aren’t comfortable with describing stuff. One of the things that’s frequently put up in gaming advice columns is to ask players “what does your spell look like?”, which is intended as a way for the player to have some creative input. They can, in theory, say that their magic missiles take the form of transparent screaming seagulls, or that their particular fireball has green flames and a scent of sea-foam. However, on more than one occasion (not in my own games), I’ve seen the situation where a player looked slightly worried, and picked up the rulebook to see how the spell was described there and read that out.
I do have the vague idea that Critical Role is slowly changing that, or is at least making sure that the up and coming generation of gamers, who discovered TTRPGs through streaming shows, will have some more recognition of player input into description. Matt Mercer’s “how do you want to do this?” line is one aspect, but you can also see it in the way in which Liam O’Brien describes his characters’ actions - whether it’s spellcasting or martial arts. In particular, both are descriptions of things that have already happened within the ruleset, and are being described, rather than the player describing something cinematically cool that they want to happen, and then having to scrabble for mechanics to support that.
And this is collaborative description happening within D&D. It’s Mercer handing control of one specific description to a player, or in O’Brien’s case, it’s a player who knows the rules well describing what his character is doing in atmospheric detail. I’m kind of looking forward to encountering this kind of descriptive behaviour in the wild. I suspect it’s going to turn up from newer players, though, not us stuck-in-the-ruts elder gamers.