Oi, rules, get out the way!

A long time ago, in a blog post, Vincent Baker wrote about mechanics which are driven by the game fiction, and mechanics which aren’t. He used some fancy diagrams to make the point, but I think it’s not much more complicated than that. His point (or at least a point that he made) was that if your mechanics aren’t, on some level, driven by the fiction, then you end up ignoring the fiction.

Why is this? I think it’s reasonably straightforward. If the game’s mechanics can manage quite well without the fiction, the fiction becomes an inconvenience. You can’t have your hit roll until you’ve described your attack. You can’t have your damage roll until you’ve described some gore. The description makes no difference to anything, and you may well not be that interested in detailed descriptions of combat. You want to skip to the stuff that actually matters, the hit roll and the damage roll. And so, with the best will in the world, it becomes tempting to skip over, you know, the actual roleplaying. And as your descriptions become more perfunctory, they seem ever more unnecessary, the colour drains from your combat (or investigation, or whatever mechanic it might be) in favour of lifeless dice rolling.

(Incidentally, I’m not talking about mechanics that model the fiction. Nice probability curves and mechanics broken down in a way that maps onto the fictional “reality” are not relevant here. I’m not against them. But what I’m talking about is mechanics that engage because of circumstances somebody narrated, and which are sensitive to the detail of that narration.)

Once I’d seen the phenomenon Baker describes, I could not unsee it. Everywhere I looked were designs which violated the “fiction first” principle, where a conscious effort is required to keep describing, at least when the game’s mechanics are engaged. And, conversely, many an hour of dull die-rolling seemed explicable, even inevitable, given the rules of the games I had been playing.

To bring this back to the title, many roleplayers would prefer that the rules just “get out of the way”. And I think Baker’s analysis is highly relevant to understanding why. When your mechanics suck the colour out of your roleplaying in this way, every time you find yourself in a mechanics-free scene, everything will seem that much more vibrant. You have no choice but to describe, because the mechanics aren’t there to pick things up; and the fiction no longer seems a burden, because it isn’t getting in the way of your resolution system. In the absence of those mechanics, that resolution system will probably be GM fiat or collective agreement, probably based on what is plausible in the fiction, making description key.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the entirety of mechanics-averse play is down to a lack of “fiction first” in the rules. A significant amount of it is down to clunky, cumbersome mechanics, cognitive load and tedious book-keeping, for example. But it is certainly a part of it. When the fictional situation drives the mechanics, when fictional logic is put at the centre of the rules, this problem falls away. And so, whenever I design a mechanic, I always look at it through this prism, watchful for anything that might tear the players away from the fiction.

Approaching the Problematic: Lovecraft and Me

It is important to be honest when something you love is problematic.

I love Lovecraft’s work and at the same time I hate his worldview.

I will not try to excuse the fact he was a bigoted racist nor that his outdated ideas about women, sex and mental health were hurtful and damaging. (If you are scratching your head thinking “what, Lovecraft, a racist – I would recommend this excellent article here by Nnedi Okorafor about Lovecraft and racism. ) And yet I’m co-writing and soon to be publishing Lovecraftesque, a game inspired by Lovecraft.

I’ve really grappled with this game on a personal level. Ever since reading Graham Walmsley’s excellent “Stealing Cthulhu” it has been clear that Lovecraft gaming needed a GMful Story Game variant. Not just needed, but the source material was perfectly set up to create such a game. As Graham reminds us Lovecraft’s stories are (almost) always about a lone protagonist uncovering something terrifying and being powerless to affect it. It also allowed Josh and I to experiment with writing a system for a satisfying investigative game which is no-prep, consistent and co-created. I think we’ve done a great job with that.

What draws me to Lovecraft is his fusion of the style and motifs of Gothic Horror with concepts that are pure science fiction. He creates a compelling and detailed universe which he then ruthlessly refers to again and again. Barely a story goes by without mention of the Necronomican or similar fan nods. But, and this is a big but… Lovecraft’s worldview is abhorrent and it leaks into his stories like bad guttering. Nasty remarks about people of colour in The Horror at Red Hook, parables against intermarriage and obsession with racial purity in The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and parables against immigration in The Street.

I struggle with it and I have every sympathy for those who do not wish to expend their energy on trying to reconcile with Lovecraft. Similarly the casual bigotry towards mental health problems, the ready slur that someone cannot be trusted because they are ‘mad’ is a constant feature.

This is not to say – “poor Becky, it is so hard for her”.  More that I don’t feel I should be writing or pseudo-promoting Lovecraft without an attempt to make the material more inclusive.  Without owning that something I like is problematic and challenging.  In particular I believe strongly that if you don’t look at his work critically then you are doomed to perpetuate and even expand on his racism – albeit unconsciously.  I don’t want to end up in that space.

 

That is why it was essential to Josh and I that, in undertaking this game, we took a long hard look at unpacking the problems with Lovecraft and writing game guidance on how the players can approach it at the table. I believe it is possible to have a satisfying game which feels like Lovecraft without the racism and by using a more inclusive and more sensitive approach to mental health. We have done a lot of thinking and listening and asking for help on these issues over the last few months – so many wonderful people in G+ have been generous in listening and helping us expose the problems and think about how to tackle them. Thank you everyone!

So here are a couple of the things we have incorporated into the game so far (more is coming!):

1. Firstly (and this applies to so many things!) get active consent. Have a discussion with your players, ask them what they are comfortable with and what they don’t want in the game. Don’t make any assumptions. Just because there was lots of racism in society in the Victorian age ( and you could insert any number of alternative settings here) doesn’t mean that people want to play through it. I can love the feel of Victoriana without wanting to play the detailed racism and sexism. If anyone at your gaming table has any issues with bringing racism etc. into the game (and I can guarantee you I would be one of those people!) then don’t do it.

If you are running a game for strangers who may not be comfortable with telling the table they want to keep sexism or homophobia out of a game then consider taking the lead and banning it anyway. Personally, I don’t know of a single game which was enhanced by casual thoughtless bigotry (unless the point of the game is to call it out and deal with it) but I’ve definitely played in games which were wrecked by it.

2. Secondly, getting consent sometimes goes beyond who is at the table – but where you are and whether you can be overheard. Are you at a Con or other public space? Does having racism, sexism and mental health bigotry in your game mean that passers by are going to get a dose of ‘surprise race hate’ they weren’t expecting. You probably don’t mean it like that – but in our community we have a responsibility to look out for each other.

Given the subject matter of Lovecraft I feel we have an extra duty to be better, to actively care more for each other.

Lovecraftesque will have sections dealing with both Racism and Mental Health in the game text and beautifully diverse artwork. If we can we are hoping to go into these in more detail in stretch goals… but that will depend on you backing us!

So watch this space!

For more resources on this check out:

Deeper in the Game blog by Chris Chin

Orientalism and Exoticism: How Good Intentions Go Astray by Mo Holkar

Mental Illness: Not a Flavour, Not and Excuse by Shoshana Kessock