Long, long ago, I was in a game session with my friend and co-podcaster Chris, and many of his frequent fellow RPG travelers. Our mutual friend and sometime-podcast-guest Brian was running. Brian likes Fudge, and had put together a number of characters in a Battlestar Galactica vein, along with the various spacecraft those characters piloted. Now, I was unprepared for the session and unfamiliar with the tropes of the new BSG (I plan to correct that latter problem soon), but I don't think that completely explains the problem I had in the session.
Basically, these guys were good. Really good. They were not just completely driving events through freeform, with Brian the GM just giving things an occasional nudge, but they were doing it like kung fu masters. They'd throw out one joke, or one sentence of description, and throw its weight through the rest of the scene. The scenes were action-packed, too, not the sort of stationary emoting that I tend to associate with people who are really attached to freeforming. I guess they were just really in tune with one another and good at a certain kind of improv. Whereas I was very trepidatious... I didn't know what I was allowed or expected to do and so didn't do much of anything. (It didn't help that my character was, through only a little bit of fault of my own, "my thing" - a reserved, brainy type.) I was waiting to be fed an obvious course of action.
I have more or less processed what this all means for me as a player: I really like, and need, rules that push me out of my comfort zone and make me take action. But the other issue that's been bothering me is this: how could we extract for export
the kind of play going on at that table?
Chris and I had a separate conversation last week that helped crystallize things for me. He's just played (actually run) his first game of Primetime Adventures, and while I think the problem he was having was really that they weren't building conflicts around issues, he expressed a lot of frustration that players were in a rush to find conflicts rather than to stay with "story" - which I put in quotes because, as he explained when I made "er?" noises, it turns out he meant freeforming. (Although when conflicts aren't built around issues in PTA, they don't really serve story at all. So maybe he was also saying what he meant. But! Not the point.)
Suddenly this all gelled with my earlier Mridangam thoughts and the notion of out-of-band communications at the table. Also I'd spent the weekend finally reading and absorbing all the awesome that is Capes. And I thought, hey, maybe the way to get system out of the way for Chris and his action-freeforming buddies, but still have system present and helpful, is just to... get it out of the way. Have it literally sitting there on the table, ready to be used when needed, just sitting there when not. And we will quite naturally do this by writing things on index cards as they come up in play, ho ho.
So in about an hour's time, I'd written this
. I am not looking for any specific comments on that system (but to address your first complaint, I am likely going to rename it the Freeballin' Fudge Framework). What I'm wondering is this: is there any future in the idea of a set of game mechanics being descriptive rather than prescriptive?
I've created these rules out of what I remember about that BSG-oid game. People would improvise, riff off each other, talk about
their characters and play
their characters more than try to be in
them. And very gradually, one thing - in the first scene of our game, a dogfight between two squadrons of fighters - became important enough that it seemed like time to make a roll for it. People were on the edge of their damn seats for that roll, and had a blast narrating (together!) what came out of it, whatever that was. And then Brian nudged us toward what was next.
I wrote the system linked to above with GMlessness in mind, just because I had so much Capes on the brain, and the act of silently marking things with coins just naturally put me in mind of Universalis. But I think it could just as easily be run with a GM. For the other players in the BSG game, that would have been a bit like having, I don't know, a graphical readout on the table of how they were behaving anyway. Am I wrong to think that'd be useful for them? All I really know is that, as someone who was having a hard time finding a systemic "in" into what they were doing, it would have been a boon for me: a place where we could have met in the middle.
Finally, where else could the notion of a descriptive system go? I've been trying to think of a useful way that an at-the-table system could act like a recorder for play. (This could potentially be a way to fool freeformers into using mechanics without realizing it!)
Not completely sure if I've said what I set out to here. Help me firm up my thoughts? Have I completely reinvented some obscure (to me) wheel?