Reading games

I have lots of role playing games in my book cases. Actually, make that lots and lots of role playing games in my book cases. Many years ago I passed the point where I realized that I will not be able to play all of them in my life time. So which games are the nuggets of my collection? Which ones should I read up on, learn, write adventures for, promote to my gaming friends and actually play? It is hard to choose. I have wanted to play them all, at least when they were added to my collection. But now? But in five years? When I retire?

To find those nuggets of golden gaming I have started a project to read games and analyze them. I will start with the ones that look interesting at the moment, and since the collection slowly grows maybe I’ll never make it back to the old stuff, unless my interest is rekindled. The games I already have read as part of this project are listed in the index of gaming posts.

How to read a game
With so many games and so little time I will only read enough to get an outline of the game, I want to have time to actually play those games I find interesting too. I might skip reading lists of skills and attributes, just skim the optional rules in the combat chapter, select a few of many described locations to read and just check the headlines for the others. And I will take notes and publish them here under the Reading games category.

What makes a game?

I believe that a game as read from a book consists of three parts.

  • The setting – The fictional world in which the game is set.
  • The rules – The mechanical stuff, dice and tables.
  • The form – The way the game is supposed to be played.

For most gamers the first two ones should be pretty obvious. ‘A game consists of two parts, the rules and the setting.’ But I think that is not enough to describe a game, perhaps it once was, when games actually just had a setting (a dungeon beneath the city) and rules (how to bash the monsters down there and take their gold), it was implied that you’d play a party of adventurers that went down dungeons to bash monsters and loot. These days games are played in so many different ways, just take the GM for example. Once the natural hub of any gaming group, the provider of adventure and fun. In some ‘new’ games there is no GM, or the role of GM rotates amongst the players during play.

Gamer A: ‘I don’t like Game X.’
Gamer B: ‘I love Game X. You’re playing it wrong!’

Provided that the preferences of A and B are similar, why did they have so different opinions about Game X? They played the same game, with the same rules and the same setting. The answer lies in the form. The mysterious set of implied conventions of how a game should be played. Some games make the form very clear, some ignore it entirely and you have to guess from reading the rules and the setting. How did the author play this game? How should it be played? How often should the ninjas attack? Should the characters feel angst after bashing the ninjas? Who decided that ninjas should attack; you, I, the GM, all of us together?

The sections
Each report contains the following sections:

  • A presentation of the game. Just a few words about the game to make the impression that it is an article about the game, rather than a cold and boring analysis.
  • The book itself – What does it look like? How does it read? Even if I never get around to playing it, this is the artifact that will sit on my shelf.
  • The setting – A short summary of the setting.
  • The rules – The fundamentals of the rules.
  • The form – How the game is supposed to be played.
  • Conclusion – Now, here comes the tricky part. If this had been a review I would now give the game stars or some numerical grade, indicating how good the game is. This according to my subjective taste at the moment.

    I don’t review games, at least not here. The conclusion is just a measure of how well the book explains the setting, the rules and the form. Does it give the information needed to write adventures and run games without having to do all the hard work myself? Do the rules actually support the style of the game, do they actually reflect the setting? Can I clearly see how the game is supposed to be played?

  • Will I play it? – Perhaps this is the grade, the answer to the question if the game actually will make it to the table. What will it take for me to read the game again and really learn it and do all the prep work?

In a perfect world all the comments on the game would be objective. But of course they can not be, if the setting appeals to me I might infer stuff that I’d like. If the rules are not to my taste I might be seeing flaws that are not there. And the form is tricky no matter how you read a game, I bring with me twenty years of experience of gaming, and with that experience preconceived notions. I am bound to see some form where there is none, and to overlook some form. Reader beware.

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