Reading up on Monster of the Week before our game and…

My big Issue with PbtA games is they tend to be both, like… too prescriptive and too vague, all at the same time? Like stats and abilities are all super-simplified, which is fine, but then… moves are super prescriptive at the same time? Like, try and play for e.g. Monsterhearts as an investigative game—which, spoiler alert, we did—and see what I mean. Because of the way Moves are structured in that game, there’s basically no way to convey in-character information independently of player deduction, unless you resort to, like, some kind of precognition/supernatural intervention mechanic, which often ends up feels really GM-ex-machina-y.

This, incidentally, loops back to my biggest problem with a lot of indie TTRPGs in general; namely, an over-focus on player-as-character and narratives driven by inter-player conflict. One of the reasons I play TTRPGs is because they’re a nerdy social activity that’s not a board game, and pretty much my entire reaction to board games can be summed up by trying to play Nightmare with some friends at a sleepover in like Year 9, and sassing back to the Gatekeeper. At one point in the game, the Gatekeeper makes a ruling that the players must agree to exile someone to “the Black Hole,” which basically keeps them out of play for a period. I guess the idea was for the players to pick the current winning player, like shooting a Blue Shell in Mario Kart or whatever. In our game, we decided that we would banish the Gatekeeper to the Black Hole, which we determined meant we got to ignore everything he said until he released himself. From there, the game basically degenerated (read: got way better) as everyone worked together against the game to all “escape” simultaneously. Because fuck board games, fuck game theory,1 and fuck rules that pit groups of friends against each other in “friendly” competition, basically.

Basically what I’m getting at here is that way too many indie TTRPGs nowadays feel like board games to me, with the focus more on inter-player drama rather than players-versus-the-GM/-story. Apparently I’m in the minority in this—I made the ranga beard nerd at the Friendly Local Games Store sad by mentioning it once—but, in my defense, my usual gaming group2 are already pretty good at frothing up at-the-table drama and really, really do not need the incentive from the game mechanics themselves.3

Which also hits on the player-as-character thing and, yes, I can see what the whole “narrative-driven roleplay” stuff is trying to get at, and it’s not bad exactly, it’s just… again, I play TTRPGs to experience making decisions as someone who is not me. That means they might be smarter than me, or more articulate than me, or whatever, and games that over-focus on basically turning the game into an improv acting session give me less of a feeling of immersion, not more, when I’m suddenly expected to assume my stuttered attempts at pick-up lines or a suspect interrogation or whatever are Super Effective, just because my character has the right stats. Like, gloss it or don’t, but don’t insist players act out things they’re obviously not comfortable with that their characters obviously are.4 Ditto for puzzle mechanics. Yeah, figuring out the GM’s play session puzzle on your own can be a cool a-hah! experience, but…like. Isn’t that metagaming? Where is that separation? And, like, to be clear, I’m actually fine with (most) metagaming, even to the point of players collaborating out-of-character to direct the actions of a single character, but I do also find that the people who tend to be the most militantly “narrative-driven roleplay” types also tend to be the biggest anti-metagamers which, like. C’mon. At least be consistent.

Anyway. None of that is new, and I don’t think it has any answers per se, although definitely individual games tend to take a stance, and more and more I’m finding myself in opposition to the stance many are taking.

None of which means, y’know, that we didn’t have a blast playing Monster of the Week, because we did. But this is also like the fourth(ish) PbtA game our group has played,5 which means by now we’re pretty good at cherry picking what rules do and don’t work for us (we mostly ignore Basic Moves, for example).

Which, y’know. I’d argue is kinda the whole point.

  1. Or, more accurately, the general pop culture perception of game theory, i.e. the one in which one-shot self-interest is always the “rational”/correct strategy. It is worth pointing out that Actual Game Theory is more complicated than that, and generally concludes that the “rational” strategy in any long-term interaction—i.e. the sorts of interactions humans have in real life—is more along the lines of “cooperate and forgive” but, like. Whatever. Game theory still sucks. []
  2. Not my con group, but my local friends. []
  3. Historically, our games have fallen apart for either one of two reasons: a) GM burnout, or b) players get too mad at each other/the game/the GM, and in the interest of neighborhood harmony—we’re literally are all neighbors, who’ve known each other for decades—we pack away the dice until the wounds scab over. []
  4. Incidentally, I partially blame the popularity of broadcast TTRPG game sessions for this. Like, those people play that way because it is literally their jobs to do so, in order to entertain an audience. Too many people mistake that for it being the “best” or “correct” or “most fun” way to run a game on behalf of the players. []
  5. More if you count some of the games other people in the group have played without the whole group present. []