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Learning From Titan’s Grave and Board Games

I’m a fan of Titan’s Grave. It’s enthralling viewing, which is amazing when you consider it is a TV show that is a televised experience of role-playing game sessions. I’ve talked about why I like it and some of the implications of the TV show element that means you’re not exactly seeing the gaming experience as it might exist at your table (it is edited, there is a production support network in the delivery, music, artwork, etc), which is a good thing. I’ve watched episode nine, which is the penultimate episode and what’s interesting now is what I’m taking away from it.

A final observation is Titan’s Grave was very much a mini-campaign delivered in the same way as you might binge watch TV! Something else I’ve discussed before. Obviously, Titan’s Grave had some advantages in this regard like people making character notes and the like to feed into the next session being delivered a short time later (ten episodes over 3-4 days I believe) but it was a mini-campaign delivered in a compressed time.

What’s interesting about Titan’s Grave is there is quite a lot ‘wrong’ with Titan’s Grave (note the quotes, that’s important and I’ll get to that later). When you hear the show discussed at convention panels and the like it feels very much like they are discussing a dichotomy that many of us sort of left behind quite a while ago. It’s basically role versus role-play dichotomy which gets a bit tiring when you hear them talk about it.

While the game does focus on a story it can be a very heavily GM delivered story (though I admit it has heavily shared elements pre-start to feed in). The GM often takes control of the narrative on the player’s behalf. In fact, he does more often than he doesn’t, quite often telling the players what their characters are feeling and thinking (which is really crossing the line, though he does ask as well). While it’s talked off as collaborative, it actually feels very GM delivered. There is also a lot of scenes that are like: what was the point of that? Don’t get me wrong, they are interesting scenes in terms of things that are in them, the colour so to speak, but they seem to serve little purpose in terms of character growth? People love the whole sequence with the teddy bear but I’d have just found it frustrating. It had no point. Well, it had a dose of subtext which had to be literally pointed out by the GM to the players in case it was missed with a very heavy hand, etc. It’s also important to note when they focus on story they do have two hour long battles, they just edit them to be shorter!

I’m not even going to start on episode nine, which was essentially a ‘write a book GM’ sort of session. It was really bad, lots of narration, GM driven writing of what should happen with the occasional choice for the player. It’s touted as one of the shows best episodes. Written over 48 hours, a big focus on story and little dice rolls, etc. That’s all fine, but it was a bit too GM centred. Ridiculously so based on the edit delivered, anyway. I’d have been throwing my dice against the wall in frustration. Way too passive.

It’s also interesting from the player perspective. The vast majority of the role-playing, and I mean vast, is delivered through third-person interaction at a distance. There hasn’t really been many scenes at all that take place in first person between characters of any length and they certainly don’t often reach any sense of conclusion. There is a lot of talking about how they feel independently of actual scenes playing out based on that discussion. This is interesting as they obviously chose the cast to offer up a role-playing experience potentially better than what might be at the average table (some of them are voice actors and the like) but in truth they seem to experience a ‘lack of direct engagement with each other’ that happens at many a table!

I guess what I’m saying is if you have high expectations about what a game should be, in that it has elements of good fiction just played out in the moment, Titan’s Grave has a lot to get frustrated with, annoyed by or disappointed. As originally, stated there is a lot ‘wrong’ with Titan’s Grave.

Obviously, there isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with Titan’s Grave at all, hence the quotes.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter because the players are so obviously enjoying it! You see I have high expectations, which I think I broke the back off a lot in Fate Fading Suns which was quite a laid back experience (well, I thought so on a personal level). I think it’s a good thing. Always aim high, right? But Titan’s Grave has brought about a focus that it’s just about people having fun. If you get some of the ‘high aims’ sort of stuff great, but if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t mean it’s not a success or that people aren’t having great fun (which, ironically, is sometimes harder to get to the bottom off from the GM perspective).

This does link to another thought I had relatively recently: Why can’t role-playing game be more like board games?

I don’t mean in terms of the rules and the components in a Dungeons and Dragons 4E or Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 3E sense, but in the convenience of how they come to the actual table. I’ve had a lot of fun playing board games lately and in some ways, not others, they’ve filled the role-playing game itch. They are fun, social and get to the gamist challenge of the experience and the excitement of that while sort of giving a narrative if you try hard enough. It’s not so much a created fiction but a sequence of events. I know a handful of people who have given up on role-playing games all together due to a miss-match between what they think they should be and what’s delivered at the table.

I fully accept I’ve flirted a bit on that border at times, especially recently.

While role-playing games will probably always have a higher transaction cost than board games, though a regular Star Wars: Imperial Assault campaign has some elements of those transaction costs, it can be reduced. You can over produce, over work and concentrate too much on those high expectation elements which results in the higher transaction costs. Possibly focusing a bit more on what is fun, with some of the higher expectation stuff being an opportunity, does bring the overall experience a bit closer to just playing a game and enjoying it.
Ultimately, that’s all it is, after all.

That’s probably what gets forgotten…sometimes.

About Ian O'Rourke

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