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The Theoretical Roleplayer

What's in a game?

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"If you wish to make a campaign out of scratch, you must first invent the universe."

It's a long road, making a campaign out of scrap. Sure, you have the system, maybe the setting, you might even have players if you're lucky or have been doing stuff for a while and you're blessed with a solid reliable group. But all those, I feel, are just that: scrap. They're not what a campaign is. They're not the essential building blocks of a campaign, not what are truly important about it. The system, while important to playing the game, is just a tacked on feature. The campaign would survive with a different system and in many cases even without a system, although a well designed campaign utilizes the best system it can to further its aims. The campaign would survive with a different setting and in many cases even without an already made setting, although a planned out campaign makes use of the already existing setting and uses the setting that works best for the story. The campaign would survive with different players and in many cases even without players, although without players it would most assuredly lack an audience, as do books without readers or movies without viewers. A well designed campaign works without all three, for a campaign is, at its core, not designed with any of the three but instead added onto the existing campaign. Well designed campaigns also draw inspiration from specific aspects of systems and settings, using what they offer to form itself, but this does not mean the game's core is made up from these things.

So what is a campaign made out of at its core? What is in a game? For me, and perhaps for many others, the answer is rather simple. At the core of every well designed story, and as a consequence campaign, is a question. A question that defines the campaign, a question that is the one thing that campaign is looking to ask. This question may make itself known not as a question, but often just as a statement. To take an example, the video game Bioshock has the tagline of "A man chooses. A slave obeys." This is not a question, per se, but it still answers a question fundamental to the game's narrative: "what is the difference between a man and a slave?" Other games take a literal stance on the question, such as Planescape: Torment, asking us "what can change the nature of man?" These are the important questions that the campaign asks. It does not have to provide an answer, but merely to facilitate the participants' minds on the topic. In many ways, the asking of the question is far more important than actually answering it, and indeed there may not even be a definite answer. Another word used for the question is the theme, but I prefer to phrase it as a question. It feels more compelling and is slightly more direct of a thing than just a theme.

However, it is easy to get caught up too much into that one question or to feel entirely confused as to where to go with it. While the question should be the base for the campaign's overall form, there are other things that are needed. Things that support the question. Subquestions, themes, supplementary material that supports the overall narrative but takes it in a slightly different question. Looking again to the previous example of Bioshock, we have the various areas in it (as well as Rapture itself, but we will discuss that later) that all act as small subplots. There's Dr. Steinman, the mad surgeon who is seeking perfection through cosmetic modifications, Fort Frolic and Sander Cohen's "art" and other areas that support the narrative surrounding the city itself, as well as indirectly referencing the question of who serves whom in the city. In addition to acting as more depth and expanding the narrative themes and the questions asked, these subplots also extend the game's playtime, acting as additional content without feeling like padding.

At the beginning I mentioned the three things that are most obvious about a game when beginning its conception: the system used to play the game, the setting used to play the game in, and the players to play with. Each of these is important, but in a different position than the aforementioned question and subthemes. The trio of these minor details come after the question and themes of a game and serve to reinforce them, instead of finding themes to work with a system or setting. Why is this important? Because if you look at the system and setting first, then your mind will immediately be looking through the lenses of what you already have in mind, constrained by the limitations of the system you're using or the available ideas of a setting. The setting and system serve the theme, not the other way around.

Let us take an example out of Bioshock again. The question the game asks is about the difference between a man and a slave. We have Rapture, a society build on the philosophies of Ayn Rand, on the foundation that a man is entitled to the sweat of his brow and his work is not owned by anyone. Government is supposedly to be kept to a minimum and people are truly free to pursue their own success. In other words, Objectivism, or a variation of that; I can't claim to be an expert philosopher. This very much ties into the question Bioshock asks. Rapture was built for men who choose their own fates. However, what truly happens is that Andrew Ryan, the de facto leader of Rapture is the only person who truly chooses. He controls the entire city through various means and has a highly sophisticated system of security and oppression going on within the city. If Rapture was truly free, there would not be any bans on anything, but instead many outside world influences, such as religious material, are banned from the city. Rapture is an excellent example of a setting that supports multiple different themes while staying true to its original question. Just on the surface we have the failures of Objectivism, collapse of society, the ethics of science and art as well as a rebellion of the lower class against an oppressive regime.

However, the main question Bioshock asks is discussed through the narrative in what I might admit is almost perfect. Of course, I am talking about what is essentially the highlight of the game for myself and for many, many others:

***Major spoiler warnings for Bioshock below. It's a fairly old game by now, but I just want to make sure since it's a heck of a spoiler***

After Ryan reveals to Jack (the protagonist) that he's been mind controlled, it subverts the entire premise and the whole idea between "a man chooses, a slave obeys" becomes far clearer than ever before. Jack has been manipulated his whole life. He is nothing but a slave. Now, this comments on the nature of video games and a lot of other deconstructive aspects that are highly fascinating, but the way this relates to our topic here is that the question is thrown into the face of the player: Jack has been a slave all this time. Instead of his one-man Objectivist Rambo rampage through Rapture, he was just a slave working for Fontaine this whole time. Ryan, however, keeps his dignity: he knows he will die no matter what, but he will die on his own terms. At no other time in the game is the question of "what is the difference between a man and a slave" more evident. A man chooses, a slave obeys.

Unfortunately, the game's narrative goes downhill after that point, but the confrontation with Andrew Ryan is a game changing experience.

***Spoiler warning ends here***

In terms of tabletop games and planning a campaign, when finding out what you want to do, feel free to draw inspiration from a setting. If you find the honor-society of Rokugan interesting and would like to expand upon it, feel free to work on a question that works within Rokugan, but do not feel restricted to the setting. Do not tell yourself "this is not what would happen in the setting", as that only serves to diminish your creativity. Either have it happen in the setting regardless and face the consequences, or find a setting that works better, homebrew included. Themes and questions can be highly universal and fit almost anywhere, so try to find the setting that interests you the most while catering to the themes you want to explore. Who knows, maybe you'll find a setting that is perfect for what you want. I know I've had that happen.

Much as the setting, the system a game uses is highly important. Many tabletop games are built for specific things and seeing people trying to shoehorn one system into a game that it doesn't fit in is painful to say the least. If you have a specific question in mind, find a system that allows you to actualize that question through the mechanics. This gives a link between mechanics and narrative that feels natural and reinforces the tone you try to set. Using a system that doesn't work for a theme at best doesn't interfere but at worst it actively works against the theme. A game with a simple system for social interaction does not work well for a political game and likewise a system with simple combat does not work for a game about fighting monsters. If you want to emphasize honor and duty, find a game that has mechanics for these things instead of just "winging it". It helps the players get the idea of honor being a driving factor and allows the game to reinforce what the narrative is trying to do.

Looking again to our favorite example, Bioshock, we see immediately that it is a first-person-shooter. It also has stealth and horror elements. How exactly do these work for the narrative of the game? Lets first look at the latter two. Rapture is a city on the verge of collapse. It's endured a civil war caused by a highly addictive and mutative substance, Adam. Resources are scarce and the city is dangerous. Adam, to us, the players, is highly alien. We're not quite sure what we're getting ourselves in, and the creepy atmosphere works towards that. Stealth works to allow the player to be craftier than your opponents, giving it an almost Objectivist approach to combat. By being better and smarter than your opponent, you get through quickly and without trouble. Of course this is the case with other stealth games too, but I feel it warrants a mention in Bioshock. Another interesting fact is how, towards the end of the game, you get better and better. Your reliance on stealth and crafty tactics is reduced, allowing you to eschew cunning in favor of brute strength. The player's confidence grows of their own ability and their knowledge of the world around them, making the game less about an alien environment. But the most interesting part is the core mechanics, the shooting mechanics and the fact that you, the player, are alone in your struggle. You never have any helping hand in what you accomplish. The player becomes a one-man army, capable of incredibly feats of strength and endurance. The player becomes a walking epitome of Objectivism, the person who makes their own way through the world (of course, there is the Nietzchean ‹bermensch ideal at work here too). Even the core mechanics, as you can see, serve to further the game's goal and themes. These are small things maybe, but they are important. The game would play highly differently if it were an entirely different genre (imagine Bioshock as a isometric RPG, as a 2D fighting game, as a strategy game).

The final of the three, the players, are probably the hardest to realize in practice. Most of the time you don't know the players you'll be playing with too well, especially if you're playing online. But try to find the players that are already interested in the narrative themes and questions you're trying to convey instead of settling for people who come first or people who produce their character sheets the fastest. Quality trumps quantity in all any every case. And don't be afraid to say 'no' to a character who you feel does not fit into the overall narrative of the game. Forcing things that do not belong or actively work against the concept you're trying to build will never work to your benefit. But remember to stay flexible. Players are crafty bunches, so be prepared to shift the focus of the game when needed without losing sight of what you really want to do.

As for myself... I have yet to find the question I wish to ask. I have tried searching for it through introspection and experimentation, through finding inspiration from other sources to fuel my own. I have ideas, I have plot threads, I have ran entire campaigns trying to ask a question. But ultimately, the question I seek eludes me. And until I find what I seek, the game I truly wish to run will keep slipping from my grasp. Maybe Bioshock has the answers. Who knows? It certainly has an interesting question.

But despite what I may have said, that question is not "what is the difference between a man and a slave?" That the game has already been answered. The question is something else.

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  1. Gomer212's Avatar
    I like a game where I can stab people and light things on fire.
  2. Actana's Avatar
    Yeah. That seems to be a common thing with people. I realize I'm in a very small minority who cares about narratives more, but that's just who I am. Yours certainly isn't the wrong way to go about things, but for myself I find it just a bit too... Dull. Simple. Lacking depth. I enjoy narratives quite a bit, and I'd strive to make them the best I can. Hence the musings that I do.

    Even so, setting down a proper theme for a game can benefit it even if the game is light on story. It might not be the explicit focus, but it can benefit from these things.

    Edit: To go on this tangent a bit further, I will say the following: simplicity should not be mistaken for shallowness. A plot can be both deep and simple at the same time. It can also be complex yet completely shallow. So saying that you like games where you "can stab people and light things on fire" says nothing about what you could do with the game. In fact, I have a feeling you've already thought about the things I talk about, but they've been a bit in the background in an implicit way, not explicitly as I call them out here. That's because these things are part of stories, and every game of D&D or whatever tells a story, regardless of how complex it is. You don't have to become a philosopher or major in English to understand these things; they're not terribly complex, but they do help in creating a better story for a campaign. But only if you actively think about them.
    Updated 07-01-2014 at 06:13 PM by Actana