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Audacity in Non-Traditional Gaming

Not necessarily success, not necessarily victory, but action, adventure, and a damn good story.  And if you’re not getting that out of your gaming, why are you playing?

So I said last time.  “But Josh!” you exclaim, “I play them newfangled indie RPGs!  They’re not all about action and adventure!”

You silly straw man.  Always missing the point.  Still, it’s worth talking about briefly.

First, I think we can agree without debate that the point still includes getting a damn good story out of the game.  Indeed, with more narrativist-oriented games, this is an explicit goal.  So let’s put that aside for the moment.

Working backwards, let’s move on to “adventure”.  Adventure is a much broader term than people give it credit for, especially in gaming.  Within old-school circles it is synonymous with “scenario” or “module”, specific units of designed play.  By extension, it carries a bit of a sense of that style of play as well…the archetypal fantasy “meet a stranger in a tavern yadda yadda treasure hoard”.  We also associate “adventure” with a certain kind of story, full of action and wild events and long journeys.  We think of The Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones.

“Adventure” doesn’t just mean these things though.  “Adventure” means an exciting or unusual experience.1 When we play a game, we do so to experience something different from our everyday lives.  Even the most relentlessly avant-garde  gamers are unlikely to play a game about ordinary people leading ordinary lives doing nothing of interest.2 We play for excitement or novelty.  Perhaps we want to explore fear, or madness.  Maybe we want to use a game to ask ourselves questions about morality by confronting them in play.  Or maybe we just want to pretend we’re half-dragon bards.  Regardless of whether we’re buckling our swashes on an epic journey across a mystic land or we’re playing a quiet, deeply psychological game about love and loss, our play is an adventure.  We are moving beyond our usual experience.

Finally, and importantly, “action”.  Again, to object here you have to misunderstand this term to have a narrower meaning than it does.  “Action” is what happens when someone is active.  It’s what happens when people are doing things instead of talking about doing them.  In gaming, action is what happens when your character is doing something rather than you, the player, is talking about what to do.  Note that even a conversation is action, if it happens in-character.  The meat of play3, the tasty bit, happens in-character.  It’s where the story happens.  It’s also where you learn things even you didn’t know about the character, until that moment when you had to take action.  Writers often say that their characters sometimes surprise them, and it’s true in gaming as well.  But it can only happen when the character is active.  No matter how experimental your game of choice, no matter how narrativist or abstract the rules may be, action happens in-game, not out of it.  If you spend all your time talking about the game but aren’t actually doing anything in it, you’re not really playing…and it will be no surprise when you find you’re not having much fun.

So we want action and adventure, even if the game is about barbers solving the problems of their customers with an understanding ear, homespun wisdom, and a good $10 haircut.  And we want it to be a good story.  For less-traditional games, audacity still matters, perhaps even more so.  In games where there is less (or no) focus on the sort of combat-action typical of traditional RPGs, it is more critical than ever that players be bold with their choices and willing to invite risk.  Safe is boring in these games, many of which specifically depend on players to shape and dive forward the conflicts that make them so potent.  A player unwilling to belly up to the table with a character sheet full of problems is a player asking to be bored.  Audacity lets the player say, “screw it, let’s make my enemy the KING…a baron just isn’t dangerous enough.”  An audacious player knows a flawed character invites drama, tension, and the kinds of scenes you talk about later.4

So what I said stands.  If you’re not getting action, adventure, and a damn good story out of your games…maybe it’s time to look at the choices you’ve been making and ask yourself, “am I playing it safe?”

1: Worth noting: “adventure” also means a bold or risky undertaking; it even used to simply mean a risk (or as a verb, to risk).  If you’re not risking anything, you’re not having an adventure…and you’re probably not having a very memorable game.

2:  If you are: why, for fuck’s sake?

3: Or the juice, if you’re veg.

4: Please note that we’re not talking bullshit scene-stealing asshattery here.  This is not about making everything be about your character to the detriment of the other players.  But it’s good gaming when each character occasionally has a moment to shine (or at the least, be in the spotlight), and that works best when there’s drama and conflict built-in, ready for that moment.

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