The Joy of the Unknown


[Note: As well as posting about Duty & Honour development here, I’m also going to be writing about gaming matters in general.]

“Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.”
― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

In my home group, we have been playing through the introductory campaign – the Copper Crown – for Symbaroum, and having a very good time with it. This is the first time we have played the system and we have settled into it well enough but the real take away has been the joy that we have taken from playing a game, and a setting, within which we have almost no frame of reference. The monsters are wholly alien, the spells are totally unexpected, the abilities are still unpredictable and the setting throws up a real sense of mistrust and shifting alliances.

This has made me question some of the standard operations of game play that I have settled into over the years. One of the things that I have wholeheartedly adopted is the practice of shared world creation; players and GM riffing the world together prior to the game, developing the factions and major players involved. As a result, the game starts in a sort of setting in media res with the players and plots almost predefined. Now, I am not rejecting this as a whole, but it does give a very different game experience; a collective story-telling that is exploring a situation that has already been established. I am left wondering whether there is value in maybe scaling back some of the participation in favour of some mystery and wonder in terms of story?

There is a similar tale to tell when it comes to system, especially in more granular traditional games. We love to play D&D in our group, but we do also tend to devour it and the result is that we could be accused of being quite mechanistic in our approach. This, in turn, can take some of the wonder out of the game as we ‘know’ which are the better spells and feats, which are the optimal tactics and we have a fair idea what each monster ‘does’. In many ways this is why I prefer 13th Age, because the threats are simply more diverse and less predictable, but on the flip-side the variables that you have for a character are less. Again, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a symptom of rabid munchkinism on our part – rather, I think, quite a competitive streak in some of us and an almost academic level of reading and understanding of systems and settings.

What is required, of course, is a combination of trust and discipline. With regard to trust, I am reminded here of the rationale behind some of the earlier indie games designs; systems to regulate the actions of unruly God GMs by placing checks and balances in place. Transparency is one of the upshots of these design choices but transparency puts information in the hands of players that would better be experienced in the game, possibly? The realisation that Symbaroum has abilities that ignore armour, combined with some quite challenging levels of damage, was one of the more gratifying moments of the early games. A moment of true player based terror as their characters became truly mortal. However, trust is required in the way the GM applies these tools.

This is allowed by player discipline. The player might have the book but do they need to read and absorb every single part of it? Could some of it remain unread? Could we not memorise the minutae of every single spell and ability to keep some sort of mystique in place? And could we trust the GM that when stuff happens that you don’t understand, they are doing it within the confines of the game and not bending things to prosecute you? Yeah, of course it could but it takes restraint.

And sadly, the mystery does fade. Already, after a few sessions, I noticed our table reverting to form. One of the antagonists has an ability to ‘mind control’ a player. As I usually do, I openly tell the player they are mind controlled, what their objectives should be and let them get on with it. I mentioned that they could take one action per round and another player chirped in with ‘That’ll be Bend Will at Adept’ and just a little bit of the magic faded…

The entire experience of running Symbaroum has been excellent so far and I have learned a lot from it. It has made me question some of my basic learned assumptions around world-building and how you can actually get a sense of wonder and yes, horror, into a game. That’s been missing for me for many years and I’m thrilled.

You may also like...