Pitching New Game Systems, or “Let’s play Star*Axe!”

Back in the day, if I had a new game and I wanted to get other people to try it, I might have said something like this:

“Let’s play Star*Axe! It’s sci fi, kind of buzzmetal-grunge-future. You play space vikings sacking colony ships and planetoids, killing lots of stuff under the watchful eye of your ancestral spirits and unspeakable alien Gods. Big vibro-axes, gnarly bolt-throwers, that kind of stuff. Who’s in?”

If you pick it apart, you’ll see that I’m only talking about two things: setting, and who the characters are. I’m describing what happens in the fiction, but I’m not saying how the players are going to interact with that fiction as a game.

And that would have been fine, because back in the aforesaid day, all roleplaying games followed the same model: players controlled their characters (and nothing else) and steered them through the world and challenges concocted by the GM — what we now refer to as the “traditional” model, because yeah, that was how it was done. You knew what to expect.

But nowadays, if we’re talking about new-fangled indie / story / fringe games, all those tidy assumptions that go along with the traditional model go out the window. Maybe there’s a GM, maybe there isn’t. Maybe you have your own character, maybe you don’t. Maybe you have the ability to freely make up facts about the universe, maybe you don’t. Maybe you roll dice, maybe you flip coins, maybe there are no randomizers at all…

A more useful pitch might sound something like this:

“Let’s play Star*Axe! One player controls a hero, narrating adventures, but instead of a GM, the other players control the ancestor-spirits of the protagonist. They describe challenges, but also interject tales that dare the hero to live up to the exploits of his forefathers. When a hero dies that player becomes the ancestral voice of that hero, and another player steps up as a hero of the next generation. There’s a standard starting setting, but after big conquests a players win the right to invent new worlds, which you can then go plunder. Oh, and it’s in space, with axes.”

See the difference? This description tells you what you are going to be expected to do if you play this game. It gives you a sense of what you get to contribute.

Is that second pitch less sexy? Yeah probably, but it’s more honest. Instead of getting people jazzed on flashy fiction but then dropping the boom on them (“oh sorry, you all take turns playing solo scenes with the GM. Just wait and you’ll play in a little bit. And no, you have no creative control over the story…”) you’re telling them what playing the game is actually going to be like. You’re letting them make an informed decision.

This same thing applies to people looking for game systems, the obligatory “I want to play a game in setting X, what system should I use?” A zillion different replies follow, and they’re all answering the wrong question, because the seeker never said what kind of game they wanted to play in that setting.

The Fiction Is Not How You Play

Strangely enough, the fiction does not in any way clue you in to how you’re going to play a game. Five games, ostensibly about exactly the same thing, could use wildly different styles of play.

Forget that second Star*Axe pitch and just look at the first one again. Now sit down and write a game that matches that description. No fair looking at your neighbor’s paper. What did you make? Did you make a cooperative dungeon crawl / kill-for-lootz game, with a straight GM / player authority divide? Did you make a competitive player-vs-player “my axe is bigger than yours” game? Or maybe you made a narrative game with each hero pursuing their own goals in parallel stories? Is there a fixed setting in the box, does the GM make it up, or do we all get to add bits as we go? Do the heroes continue and grow, leveling up from game to game, or do they pursue their story arcs in a one-shot and then we’re done with them?

Those are all radically different games, but they would all fit the bill. So would a pile of other systems. All of which should underline just how uninformative that description really was.

I’ll go farther on a limb and argue that it’s easier to season fiction to taste, but it is a lot more complicated to tweak game mechanics and the structure of play.

“Hey, can we be corporate barons taking over industry instead of space vikings?” = easy! Just change the names.

“Hey, instead of you telling me what the challenges are, I want to set the challenges for my own hero.” = consequences unknown!

Even tiny rule changes can have unexpected mechanical consequences. You may not obviously crash the game, but you may do something worse: you may make it boring.

The Challenge: Raise your Star*Axe

You know what to do. Don’t just pitch the fiction. Tell people what they will get to do in this game, what they’ll get to contribute. No two games are alike.

Even if you are playing what seems like a truly traditional game, you may discover that discussing how you intend the game to be played surfaces all sorts of hidden assumptions. If you’re a player sitting down for a game, wouldn’t you like to know ahead of time whether the GM expects you to follow his carefully planned plot, or is happy with you ad libbing bits about the world, or encourages you to run off and follow your whims? Even if it’s not entirely what you had in mind, if you know, you can choose whether to give it a try. Or not.

    Ben Robbins | August 28th, 2010 | , | show 11 comments