In design, the greatest tool for improving a game is iteration. There are very few games that are completely, objectively perfect, if any at all. Iteration is vital to improving upon an existing game, from the smallest parts to entirely new editions and systems; however, this concept can be equally staggering as it is interesting. It’s dangerous to go alone, take this guide and make the first steps of evolving yourself from player to designer.
Very soon, I’ll be taking part in a Lord of the Rings themed game via play-by-post through the internet. However, rather than throwing the players into the setting as members of the Fellowship, or even within the universe whatsoever during the War of the Ring, we’ll be set a long time before the Third Age, discovering the history of Middle Earth through play.
While this is a very interesting concept, and the players are very excited to get started, it begs a timeless question: is playing with a pre-determined result fun? If not, is it possible to change history? After that, how much change is too much change when dealing with an established setting? When dealing with any established settings, especially those outside of a time-stasis or in the distant past, these are important questions to consider regarding player agency and determining play.
Of course, anything can be accomplished with the clever use of an alternate universe. However, this is a simple answer to a complex question. If players have chosen to play within a defined setting to begin with, how much of that setting is lost when casually written away? In the end, there is never a “wrong” way to play, but there are points to consider in the lines of running within an established setting.
Extending our example slightly, let’s look at Deathwatch and the universe of Warhammer 40k. It would most likely be an exciting experience to take part in the battles of the Horus Heresy as a band of Space Marines (loyalists or traitors) fighting for their side. However, if the players choose to be loyalists, is it possible to stop the Horus Heresy, reversing the endless nightmare that surrounds mankind for years to come?
I would argue that, when choosing an established setting, some facets of the setting must be untouchable. If the Horus Heresy were to be won by the Emperor, or if it had never started in the first place, the entirety of the setting behind Warhammer 40k would be different, changing essentially every aspect.
Going back to our Lord of the Rings example, this would be as tumultuous as somehow preventing Smeagol from finding the One Ring, or destroying it long before the events of the War of the Ring. At that point, the established setting changes entirely, dragging the players into a distinct alternate universe. Inasmuch, what is the point of playing in an established setting if key events never happened? Isn’t the enticement of an established setting within the known story?
The other side of the argument is that knowing sure failure can be disheartening, and outright boring, for players. If the players spend six weeks planning for a war that they factually lose without a chance for victory, why would they at all want to continue playing? Furthermore, why would they have wanted to spend six weeks planning in the first place?
To which I claim that certain aspects of a story can change, should the setting as a whole stay the same. Let us assume that the players play a role in a key battle, which turns the tide for their side. In their scene, moment, and story, they are the heroes, and deserve to feel and celebrate as such. However, one battle is not enough to win a war, and the war eventually ends with their side losing.
It is this magnification of certain events and not others that will keep players interested while adhering to a setting. The overall stories, and setting, stay the same, but the player’s involvement in it changes their viewpoints of the story, bringing about greater agency and interaction with their surrounding environments, allowing the view that, if even for a moment, they were heroes.
Have you ever played in an established setting? Specifically, have you allowed or disallowed for players to play major roles in changing the setting as you knew it? What was the effect, and would you say it was worthwhile? Let us know your experiences!
Until next week, keep those dice rolling!
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