Musings on Cross Contamination

A curious thing has been happening in our weekly 13th Age game. When a player rolls poorly, the GM would sometimes offer them what can only be described as an ugly choice. And often enough, players choose the course of action that is “sub-optimal”, if not outright harmful to their characters, as if compelled. If you’ve played Apocalypse World or Fate, you’ll recognize those terms. There are mechanics in those systems that demand ugly choices or compel dangerous-yet-interesting behavior. Except we aren’t playing either of those games.

Of course, Apocalypse World doesn’t hold a monopoly on failing forward, and neither does Fate originate the idea of playing out the negative sides of your character’s personality. However, these games (and many others beside them) are built around those concepts. By playing them, you internalize their ideas. It becomes natural to consider how your actions will impact the overall direction of the game, to offer choices. And when you move on to the next game, you bring along this expanded approach. Your games become cross contaminated.

Is that a good thing? Not necessarily. By coming into a new game with preconceptions on how to play games in general, you risk missing what makes that game different. The aforementioned AW basically screams from every page it’s a different kind of beast, yet some seasoned players and GMs alike read it and are left wondering why anyone would want to ever play something that allows its GM to respond to any PC action with bears. Likewise, going into an OSR game expecting it’ll provide a sequence of fun, challenging yet ultimately fair tactical encounters à la D&D 4e will only result in disappointment.

So playing a game as “intended” is important, to understand it before you change it. Whenever learning a new system, conscious effort is required to figure out the way the author(s) had intended for it to be played. That’s not always easy. All too often, these expectations are not articulated in the text. Indeed, one suspects these expectations are rarely articulated even in the author’s head. If the author has only ever been exposed to one “way” of playing, why would they be. This is where the aforementioned AW and Fate shine: they dedicate a lot of their text to elaborating on how they’re meant to be played, and with good reason.

Naturally, you are free to change the games you play as you see fit – no game police will stop you, and purists declaring you’re having fun wrong are best left to their own strictly regimented hells. However, the cross contamination of ideas described in the first paragraph is not as overt. We didn’t introduce mixed successes or fate points to 13th Age. Instead, we had those as part of our vocabulary. We knew those tools existed, had experience with them, so we were able to metaphorically grab them off the shelf, use as required, then toss them back without looking, without even thinking about it.

By offering a mechanical reward for going against your character’s interests, Fate teaches its players it’s ok to do so. It’s all sleight of hand, the negative consequences often take more than a single fate point to resolve. It’s a bad deal, if you’re trying to “win”. But take it a few times, and you realize the game doesn’t end when the character fails, it gets more interesting instead. The criteria for “winning” shift. And once that happens, the fate points are not needed anymore.

Likewise, AW teaches the GM to put a lot more trust into the players. Its rules dictate the GM to let them pick their own poison, and ask them questions and accept their answers as truth. In effect, the players take ownership of these little bits of the game, and through them, the game as a whole. Once you are used to relinquishing control just a bit, you no longer require the rules to tell you to do so.

The moral? Play more, play different, play mindful. Step out of your comfort zone every once in a while. All the GMing advice articles in the world won’t beat the experience of actually doing it.

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