Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Gaminess" or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ICRPG

I wanted to expand on an idea I had regarding ICRPG:,which is the matter of what I call "Gaminess," that is to say, the times when a game or its subsystems remind you that they are games.

"Unlocking Chests: Basic Effort"
by Hankerin Ferinale.
ICRPG in particular does this through its deployment of video game tropes:
  • It uses hearts to measure increments of 10hp.
  • It has defeated enemies drop chests full of randomized loot.
  • It relies heavily on a simplified crafting system.
  • The best optional mechanic for limiting spellcasting, Spellburn, creates an MMO-style reheat.
  • Character upgrades are handles solely by optimizing gear.
My personal goal in gaming, old-school as it may be, is to create a simulation of a living, breathing world. One where things happen beyond the PCs' actions, where NPCs react like human beings, not robots, and where economies, cultures, and ecosystems respond to the magic and technology present in the setting.

I can't create a perfect simulation, obviously. Instead, I strive for a mix of internal consistency and keeping metagame intrusion down to a minimum. I try not to remind my players that they are in a game.

The inclusion of deliberately "gamey" tropes as I have played ICRPG over the last year has been challenging because it is so radically different from my usual style. I find the inclusion of them jarring, although my players are very comfortable rolling with it by comparison. I dislike how the video gaming tropes remind the PCs of the game.

ICRPG is, of course, not the only game that does this Shadowrun's constant reference to tactical AR displays can definitely draw your attention to the fact that you are playing a game. The same is true of Knave, with its spell list that is brimming with video game references and jokes.

And, thanks to Dungeons and Dragons' place in gaming history, of course, its tropes of levelling, hit points, and slotted spellcasting are so abundant in video games, playing D&D role-playing games can feel like engaging with / deploying video gsme tropes now, even if D&D did it earlier. 

I am a stoic at heart. I am of the belief that if something bothers me and not others it is more likely a problem with my thinking than it is a problem with a system, setting, etc. Before I attack a problem I always try to check whose problem it is. In this case, the problem is clearly located between my ears, and not in the book.

To wit: My goal of having a realistic (to me) simulation is not what my players are looking for, or they would find it jarring, too. It is clearly not a problem everyone experiences in TTRPGs.

And no matter what game you are playing there will always be times when the game's mechanics get in the way of verisimilitude. Armour Class is a classic example: it works nothing like real armour does, and my players are forever taking notes trying to derive a monster's AC so that they can decide what feats and spells are safe to deploy.  They treat it like a game of numerical battleship together. There are a thousand game design choices that can suddenly pull a player out of the Theatre of the Mind and suddenly aware that They are just sitting at the kitchen table. 

One must accept that Simulation is an unattainable ideal, something to chase after accepting that you will never fully reach it, content with the good things you create in the pursuit. Rather like a knight chasing the Divine Feminine in Courtly Romance.

Why did I find this particularly vexing? Was it that the use of these video game tropes just seems like brazen disregard for the goal of simulation?

If I could answer that question, I could probably make WotC's day by explaining what went wrong between them and the fans in D&D4e. But the bigger question was, "How do I get over myself and really enjoy the incredibly well-designed system that is ICRPG?"

The Dybbuk from the D&D 3.5e
"Book of Vile Darkness" makes a
badass visual for a Minecraft
 Ghast re-imagined for ICRPG.
© 2002 Wizards of the Coast
My answer came, ad it often does, by talking with my four-year-old. My son is only allowed to play a curated set of puzzle games and classic NES / SNES games at his age, but he loves watching more advanced games being played. He ix particularly obsessed with Minecraft and Plants vs, Zombies. When I asked him to help me plan what monsters his mommy and his uncles would face in D&D that night, he chose, creepers, ghasts, and endermen from Minecraft

At first I was tempted to say "no" and point out that this was not that kind of game, but then I thought "Why not?" I'd drawn loose inspiration from video games before; I was using a few video-gamish spells borrowed from Knave... why not make a video game adventure.  And so my PCs found themselves exploring the lost Dwarf Fortress of the wizard Gnajom, with his secret spells for shsping Earth and Stone, while fightimng past exploding plant monsters left over from his alchemical experiments. And it was a hit!

I realuzed that video game tropes, like fantasy tropes are things people can enjoy and take for granted very happily, and the block I was feeling was mostly just my own expectations of which tropes were andcwete not in a game as a matter of arbitrary taste. Much like Judge Jen over at mentioning how she "doesn't like too much Science Fiction chocolate in her Fantasy peanut-butter." I didn't want too much video gsme pineapple on my tabletop pizza... but if ypunembrace it, its fine.

 "Captain N: the Game Master" © 1989-1991
DIC Animation City. Captain N was a Saturday
 morning cartoon about  boy who was sucked
 into a Nintendo NES and became a hero moving
 betweenof different Nintendo games' settings
to thwart an alliance of  game villains
In fact, exploring it like this made me appreciate some games like Super Blood Harvest and The Ultraviolet Grasdlands that intentionally model themselves on a video game aesthetic. And it let me see an opportunity. As I am trying to get my son to try ICRPG with me, Incouldbprobably grab and hold his interest by creating a campaign where the heroes are in a video game world, or travelling betwern video game worlds. Something like a mix of TRON, Captain N: The Game Master, the metaplot of Battletoads, the horror movie Arcade, and the better holodeck centred episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation

Often where we struggle, there is room for self-understanding and growth.

I'm curious to know how other GMs approach "Gamey" elements that stand out like proud nails in their RPG sessions. Please let me know if this bothers you, or if you embrace them.

Did this affect your appreciation of D&D4e or ICRPG?

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