Between a rock and a hard place

Recently I’ve encountered a number of games, both as a player and as a GM, that have really made me think about the nature of game construction, more specifically how far games should go in providing frameworks that encourage players to take certain actions, the best way to go about doing it and whether they should do it at all.  I’ll try and explain what I mean.

At a most basic level a roleplaying game can be described as a series of rules which allow people to play in an alternate world through their characters.  The purpose of these rules or mechanics is to dictate what can or cannot be done; that’s pretty much the way I have always thought about the way roleplaying games operate.  They system functions as a restriction on imagination; in a game played entirely in the mind the rules induce challenge into a scenario, they tell the players they have to roll a certain number on a die to hit an enemy or leap a gap and stop the whole thing devolving into the equivalent of the classic playground “I hit you/No you didn’t” back and forth that occurs when multiple people’s imagined excellence clashes.  I always considered them necessary to allow the hobby to be a game, and not simply friends sitting around and jiving about what would be cool to imagine (which is fine and dandy, but isn’t really an RPG).

It has occurred to me recently, however, that this understanding fundamentally ignores the first part of that description; mechanics dictate what can be done in a game, as well as forbidding players from running riot.  They provide an example to the players of the kind of actions expected of their characters, and what niches their characters can fill.  This is something I don’t think I ever considered until I started playing/running less mechanically heavy games, but now is at the core of what I think about when I start to put a game together.  When I ran Exalted, I never worried that people might struggle to envision what their characters could do, because 90% of the mechanics in that game are rules which provide examples, in the form of charms or other powers, of abilities the characters have or actions they can take in game. On the other hand when I’ve come to run Dungeon World recently, or my own cut-down version of Exalted which completely removed charms as a mechanic, the most common issue I’ve run across is players being at a loss to understand what their characters are able to do.  The lack of restrictions means that there’s nothing to tell them what actions their characters can take.

This seems inexplicable to me, at least at first glance.  The focus of these games is that players should generally be allowed to do anything that seems right (see: awesome), only rolling for a resolution when presented with a real challenge.  They shouldn’t be bogged down with a list of specific moves and techniques which are the be all and end all of their abilities, they should be doing what seems in character, whether or not it was thought of by the game designers in the first place.  These more freeform games, by their very nature, lack a lot of the structures used by other games to tell players what they can’t do, but this missing game architecture is what throws some of my players through a loop.  They want their games to list the things they can’t do and tell them the specific things they can do, because otherwise they feel like they’re at a loss as to what their character is capable of.  It’s a case of crippling indecision; if you can do anything, how do you decide what you should do?

I struggle to understand this position; if anything I always over-think my characters and feel like I’m brimming over with cool ideas that I only wish weren’t held back by the dots/numbers on my sheet.  I rarely feel the characters I build are awesome enough to really represent what I envision.  I’m trying to describe an iconic character with roleplaying rules; I’m never left with enough points to really make my character as good as he seems.  This probably leads me to more and more to love narrative games, where the character’s influence comes more from the storytelling than the mechanics.

So this brings me back, very vaguely, to my original title.  This is my rock and a hard place, my struggle to find the perfect balance.  I’m stuck between, on the one hand, systems replete with rules and mechanics that detail every possible action and exclude any other functions (without GM intervention of course), and more freeform games that encourage players to do whatever they think right for their characters, but that inevitably leave some people dumbfounded as to what they think that should be.

Unfortunately it’s a conundrum I’m not completely sure how to solve.

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