Lingua Franca

I’ve been running a group that does weekly pickup games, specifically story games. It’s open to the public, and anyone is welcome to play, so we get a pretty random mix. I have yet to sit down with the same combination of players twice, which is great exercise for your gaming muscles.

We get new folks just about every week. Now back in the day, if you got a random batch of gamers together you could be pretty certain everyone had played D&D, at least once. Often they’d tried nothing else. It was the common tongue of gamers (pun intended).

Indie gamers, even very experienced indie gamers, are an entirely different kettle of fish. They play a game once or twice, maybe never play it again, pick up the latest release, try that, maybe never play it again, and so on. And because there are so many indie games, if you get a bunch of gamers together they might not have a single game in common — not one game that they’ve all played (which is fascinating in itself).

It may seem like you have common ground, because a lot of indie games use similar concepts: scene framing, narrating to bring in dice linked to descriptions, conflict resolution, things like that. You can glance at a totally new game and say “oh, yeah, I get it, the conflict resolution rules are just like Game X, and hey, the scene rules are a lot like Game Y.”

But sometimes you get fooled. You see rules that you think are the same as other games you’ve played, but the similarity is only skin-deep — what my French teacher called “false friends”, because they look the same as English words but mean something totally different. If you’re trying to learn the game, you may unwittingly morph it into what you’ve played before, instead of recognizing what’s new and different: the originality gets sucked into the gravity well of the familiar. Even if it’s a game you totally understand, you can hit snags when you explain it to someone else: they hear part of your explanation and say “yeah, I totally get it!” because they’re thinking of some other game they’ve played before too.

You think you’re all speaking the same language, but you’re not.

One Game to Rule Them All

A lot of the folks who show up for our games haven’t tried story games, or only have limited exposure, so part of my job is to suggest games that might be a good fit and then explain how to play.

My original plan was to keep bringing new and different games, to expose people to lots of styles and let them decide what they liked. That’s still a long-term goal, but after doing this for a few months it’s on the back-burner. My new plan is to repeat the same game system over and over again with different combinations of players.

Why? On one hand I think playing a game just once isn’t enough to really scope it out. Half the time you’re listening to someone explain the rules or asking questions, rather than relaxing and being creative. Some portion of your brain is busy learning and comprehending rather than playing, even more so when the whole style of play is new to you.

But my main reason is to establish a lingua franca, at least one game almost everyone in our tiny community has played. It gives everybody something in common, something they can talk about, compare notes about, or use as a reference point when explaining or trying to learn other games. Compare and contrast, love or hate — at least we know we’re all talking about the same thing.

A side benefit is that it may speed up the process of making people comfortable running games themselves: if you’re new to story games and you’ve played four different games once, you might not feel like you know any of them well enough to teach others and facilitate, but if you’ve played one game four times, you should be pretty confident how it works.

Begin As You Mean to Go On

What game have I been using? Shock: Social Science Fiction. It hits my key criteria: it’s high creative involvement for all players, equal authority, no GM, no prep, and relatively simple mechanics. And because there’s no inherent setting — you spawn a whole world concept during setup — you can play it over and over again without feeling like you’re treading old ground.

I also think it’s a lot of fun. If you were in my shoes you might pick something entirely different, depending on your preferences, but I like it and it does the job. I did not want to start with a game that was closer to traditional games (something with a GM setting the scenes and guiding the action). As the saying goes: begin as you mean to go on.

    Ben Robbins | June 2nd, 2010 | organizing | show comments