Theory, Planning, Knowledge
I like games. A lot. I grew up playing games, playing board games, playing tabletop, and playing video games. When other people were over, I’d try to get them to play a game. When nobody was there, well, hell if I didn’t try and play those exact same games by myself. When I was a kid, I loved just reading about games, whether it was flipping through Game Player reading about all the new stuff coming out for the Genesis (which I didn’t even own) or reading about the Queen of Hearts’ hedgehog croquet in Alice in Wonderland. I made up games, pretend games with my friends on the schoolyard, boardgames at home, and I’ve still got three or four iterations of rpgs I wrote when I was ten. I didn’t understand how the elements worked, or that you needed to have mechanics, only that there ought to be numbers and stuff with cool names. Imagine my surprise when I got into high school and found people who loved games almost as much as I did, and then I got the internet, and found out that you could play just about anything on there, from Go to Doom (both of which I lost at quite handily). So when I finally thought I wanted to write about something, I thought “Games!” It took me a bit to get going, but we’re moving. Now, let me introduce some core principles.
How we think about games matters. The kind of understanding we have of a game helps create the kind of fun that we have. This is especially important in co-operative games like rpgs, but also in competitive games like football. If you’re playing touch when everybody else is playing tackle, you’re in some trouble. We need to care about the kinds of relationships we have with other players and with the GM, and always keep in mind how we’re playing the game. Developing an idea of what we expect out of a game and what we ought to expect out of it means developing a theory of games. If we don’t have this, we’re lost.
A theory is a wonderful what. It can tell us that we want a GM who challenges us, follows the rules, is honest, works with people, that sort of thing. In football, it can tell us the kinds and shapes of people we want on the field. The skinny fast guy probably isn’t the best defensive end. Theory tells us what we want and why we want it, but planning tells us how to get it. How do we build trust? How do we respect autonomy? How do we make things more fun?
There’s a matter of fact to these things. I’m not saying there’s one right way to play each game and that all others are badwrongfun, but there’s going to be a set of optimal conditions. We can probably all agree that nobody wants to play a game with a dude who’s hopped up on coke and waving a gun, for instance. Monopoly or Steel Battalion, that dude is probably not welcome. Through application of plans and iterations of theory, we can learn from our mistakes and work toward some kind of knowledge.
Not just a cute acronym, but a central philosophy. These are the three things I think we need to have a really good game of anything, but especially when the game is as complex as a tabletop game. That’s why I write this, and why I care so much about thinking about games. It matters at least as much as the people you play with.