Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Move”. Again a solid choice for a prompt by RPGaDay, as there’s quite a few directions you can go with this. I will take the prompt to indicate a game mechanical concept, being an action by a player in a game as an abstract component of playing that game (rather than, say, a “move” as an action as used in D&D, for example).
A recent post by Fub made me think about the possiblity to abstract actions in RPGs. His post on RPG-a-Day 12 (topic: “Think”) dealt with the difficulties of having a character who is smarter than the player is, and how to deal with that mechanically.
Specifically, near the end of his post, he poses the following question:
Deduction is much harder to abstract away. Well, you could do the same as with recall, but is that really satisfying? Suppose there’s a murder mystery, and you collect clues. You roll the dice, and then your character solves the case. Is that fun?Fublog, August 13th 2021
It prompted me to think of player interaction with games in general. How far away can we abstract those? If we take his question to an absurd extreme, what if we thought of the following game: you start, roll a die, and if it comes up 4, 5, or 6, you win; if it comes up 1, 2, or 3, you lose. Is that even a game? There’s no interaction between the player and the mechanics of the game. You either start the game by rolling the die or you do not. There is no further action that the player takes to influence the odds, stakes, or system. I would argue this doesn’t quality as a game. To take the other extreme, if we posit a game where every tiny little detail must be worked out by the player to a nauseating detail, we reach a level of disfunctionality similar to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a novel whose very central joke is that the narrator digresses so constantly and in such detail that he doesn’t reach the birth of the protagonist until the third volume of the novel.
To avoid these two ridiculous extremes, games abstract actions into moves. In boardgames, these are quite easily distinguished as player “turns” in which, often, players have a number of “moves” or “actions”. In tabletop RPGs, this line gets blurry. During most roleplaying games I’m aware of, narrative or roleplaying sections have no separate player turns, as all action happens simultaneously. It’s let up to the discretion of the host of the game to organize and structure the narrative with the players. Usually, when conflict occurs, many games end up having a system that includes some manner of turn-taking of declaration of moves.
It reminds me of what I wrote a few days ago in response to an earlier post by Fub; broadly speaking, Fub explained how in old-school RPGs conflicts were made mechanically more rooted in rules to avoid conflicts at the player tables. In that case we externalize rules to make them objective (though arbitrary), and provide players with explicit moves to more easily categorize their actions and make them fit within the rules more easily. This type of codifying of rules, if not integrated with the system, works to separate certain elements of the narrative out into a sub-game that is more strictly regulated.
Recently, Fub and I were in a Torchbearer game together, run by a mutual friend of ours. In an after-discussion, Fub voiced the criticism that he felt Torchbearer felt too much like a boardgame. A key point is that Torchbearer does codify quite a few more things in move-like actions. I would argue that the game integrates its systems so that there’s far more cohesion in all its components. However, I can see Fub’s point that the increase in the number of moves you work with makes it feel more like a boardgame at times. Part of the issue for that particular game, I think, is that we were all struggling with it: two of the players were new to the system, I hadn’t played it in years, and the GM hadn’t run too many games of it yet either. I do wonder whether with some more practice, we could have reached a more satisfying experience with the game. It’s a pity that the GM of the game doesn’t blog as well, as I would have loved to refer to his thoughts on the matter here.
Regardless of the outcome of that particular game, however, in general I am interesting in exploring the move in games in general. Integrating mechanics throughout an RPG interests me, as I enjoy mechanical operations in games as well as seeing intricate systems work well. I’m sure this is a topic that will be returning quite frequently on this blog.