Improve Your Game

Get on the Same Page

Ever been in a game where the rules didn’t feel quite right, the players and the gamemaster were at odds with each other, and every session seemed like a slog? Thankfully you can use well-established techniques to improve your game. They work whether you’re in the middle of a campaign or just about to start one.

When you are working to improve your game, it helps to have everyone at the table engaged in that process.
After a long week of work, a game of D&D is a great way to unwind, especially when everyone is on the same page.

Chris Chinn’s The Same Page Tool will help your group figure out what everyone wants in their game. Gather everyone around a table and go through the questions one at a time, and make sure everyone agrees to the choices you make. This is an important process because it reveals hidden assumptions and eliminates potential confusion later.

The Same Page Tool helps define the campaign, but you can also improve your game by defining expectations for the nuts and bolts of making the game run from session to session. Use a social contract, which is just a set of guidelines covering things like what to do if someone can’t make a session, how frequently the group will meet to play, and so on. Adam Dray’s list of issues to discuss provides an excellent overview.

Examine the Three Agendas

Some of the following discussion may seem a bit esoteric, but give it a try. Even if you don’t buy into all of the concepts laid out here, you may find some useful food for thought.

One analytical framework suggests that there are three broad agendas involved in roleplaying:

  • Gamism — The players are focused on overcoming difficult challenges and increasing the capabilities of their characters. Game balance as player characters improve is very important, and gamist-oriented games tend toward high complexity, particularly as player character power increases.
  • Simulationism — This agenda is driven by the desire to explore a particular setting, genre, or theme with as much fidelity as possible. Combat in simulationist-oriented games tends to be more dangerous for player characters, with the spread between least capable and most capable player characters far narrower than in gamist-oriented systems.
  • Narrativism — Finding out how player characters make difficult choices and interact with each other under adverse situations propels this agenda. Games built with narrativist play in mind generally give more control of setting and story to players than more traditional gamist-oriented and or simulationist-oriented systems.

When you’re playing you’re incorporating all three agendas into your game. They don’t each get equal weight, and the mixture varies. For example, your group may be really excited about creating a highly simulationist near-future scifi campaign with a few narrativist elements and not much gamism at all. When setting up a 1920s pulp action campaign, a heavily narrativist approach coupled with gamist-style character advancement might be more appealing.

“There is only one way to roleplay: the way that achieves the best balance between the various desires of your particular group.” — Robin D. Laws

Match Game to Play Style

Although the terminology used by specific designers may vary, games are designed to favor certain play styles, and it’s useful to keep that in mind when evaluating a game. For example, you could play a Pathfinder game in which player character capabilities remain relatively static, but the rules devote hundreds of pages to feats, spells, and other capabilities that can only be obtained by leveling up. The gamist agenda is baked into Pathfinder, so while you could play it in a narrativist fashion, you would likely have to tweak the rules considerably.

  • Imagine a campaign in which player characters start as nobodies and eventually become strong enough to challenge the gods. That campaign will most likely be driven primarily by a gamist agenda. D&D, a game in which player characters gain new capabilities as they advance in levels, supports gamist play quite well.
  • A game in which the PCs inhabit a meticulously detailed and internally consistent game world probably going to be driven primarily by a simulationist agenda. Eclipse Phase, which strives through its rules and supplements to explore themes of transhumanism and horror, is designed for simulationist play.
  • A campaign focused on the interpersonal tensions of a group thrown together under adverse circumstances will most likely be primarily driven by a strong narrativist agenda. The mechanics of Apocalypse World explicitly make these relationships the core of the game, thus driving narrativist play.

More About Agendas

There are many ways of articulating play style and the factors that go into game design. For the purposes of this site I am applying definitions derived from The Big Model developed by Ron Edwards. It’s a framework that frequently confuses and annoys gamers, but Chris Chinn explains it well in his brief Creative Agendas essay.

Evaluate Rules Complexity

People frequently talk about crunch in games. Low-crunch games have less complex mechanics, high-crunch games have more. While opinions vary on individual games, in general the more times you have to consult the rulebook during gameplay, the higher the crunch (as this allergy table from Shadowrun illustrates).

Improve your play by defining what level of crunch is acceptable to everyone at the table.
Nothing says crunch quite like this allergy table from Shadowrun.

When evaluating a game it can be easy to confuse agenda with rules complexity, which can lead to a skewed interpretation. For example, Pathfinder, with its level-based character creation and emphasis on threat balance, is oriented toward gamist play. The rules for Pathfinder are also complex (aka “crunchy” or “high crunch”). But high complexity and gamist orientation do not necessarily go hand in hand. For example, GURPS has lots of crunch and is squarely aimed at simulationist play. The Burning Wheel is an extremely crunchy game, but its primary orientation is toward narrativist play.

Less complex rules don’t always equate to ease of play; there are also some games that are defined as rules-light or low-crunch but can still require some effort to translate into a smooth gaming experience, particularly for a group that has spent years playing games that have different design goals. For example, Fate Core has been described as a low crunch game, but the nuances of the system can be challenging for players who are used to a less narrativist-focused agenda.

Thinking up front about what level of complexity you want to embrace will help you narrow your options later, find the right game for your needs, and improve your game play. Keep in mind that agenda definitions and discussion of crunch are rough approximations, and most gamers can and do flip between agendas and crunch levels depending on the game and the group in which they play.