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Playbooks v Mantles

We’re currently playing Dresden Files Accelerated, which is a brilliant game and we’re really enjoying it. It has got me thinking about a few things in relation to systems and characters and how the two things intersect.

What I’m learning from playing Dresden Files Accelerated is how I don’t like certain systems because of how they attempt dictate and control.

What I’m Not Talking About

I realise all systems dictate things about your character. This makes defining what I am and am not talking about a bit challenging, as invariably I’ll have to use examples which are representative only. Let’s choose two systems and run with it, the first because it’s well known and the second because it leads into the wider conversation.

Dungeons and Dragons dictates things about your character. These are largely dictations over role rather than the characters narrative. When you choose a class along with some of the choices within that class you’re invariably selecting the role you will fill within the game. It’s also true that some of the extra items not related to your class are historical, essentially what you used to be, so these don’t really dictate anything about the future story of your character either. They can if you want but you’ve selected them by choice so that’s okay.

In almost every way, Dungeons and Dragons dictates nothing about your character’s narrative.

If we now consider Fate Core, this takes a very different approach. What constitutes your character defines a lot about your characters future narrative. The Aspects inform a mixture of past, present and future acting as flags for what the character’s story should be about, who and what should feature in it, and the various things that can impact your character’s scene by scene decisions and sources of trouble. While this is one of the quintessential examples of system dictating things about your character it’s all fine as they’re all things you chose so you’re painting the picture.

It goes wrong when you no longer feel like you are painting the whole picture.

The Powered By The Apocalypse Problem

I’ve learned I don’t like Powered by the Apocalypse games. I’ve tried numerous time and each time it hasn’t really worked out for me. It’s not the core of the rules. It’s not the advice on how the game should be played, as a lot of that is stellar advice no matter the system.

A lot of it comes down to the Playbooks and the reason is in the name, they’re too much actual Playbooks as far as your character is concerned. Let’s take Dungeon World as the example in this case though there is a couple of others I could have also used.

In sweeping terms that Playbook tells me I have a select few names to pick from and have a physical look that fits a rather limited profile. This is intensely annoying. The Moves aren’t that bad as you get to choose them and they’re similar to class abilities. Then we come to Bonds, which are intensely annoying again, with the Playbook making sweeping statements about what your relationships are with the other characters. It sets them out for you and they are very character defining on innumerable levels.

I realise these things can be easily swept aside to allow me to choose my name, look and relationship with other characters but each time I’ve played Powered by Apocalypse games these sort of directives have been in operation. If you’re going to use systems to describe why they don’t sit well with you then you have to base it on what is written down.

Weirdly Mantles Are Okay

It occurred to me at some point before starting to play Dresden Files Accelerated that Mantles are very much like Playbooks. They throw together a whole host of abilities your character has and also toss in a load of stuff that goes on to very much define what you’re character’s story will feature in its DNA.

We can use the Monster Hunter Mantle as an example as I’m familiar with it.

The Mantle dictates that the Monster Hunter is very effective when actually hunting a monster, as well as being a bit fanatical about it. It makes having a monster to hunt a critical feature of each and every game for the character to realise its full potential. There is also numerous features of the Mantle that allow the character to take an inordinate amount of punishment compared to others, especially other mortals.

While this is a bigger thing than choosing between a Cleric or a Fighter in Dungeons and Dragons it does fall into the category of ‘if you are choosing a Monster Hunter then you want to hunt monsters and do it well in an obsessive way’. The Mantle elements tend to influence the types of story your character should be embroiled in but not who the character is who gets involved in those stories.

That is the key point. It doesn’t define who you are, just that choosing the Mantle is one big flag that you’ll be taking part in monster hunting stories.

It’s Also About Too Much Structure

This issue I have with some role-playing games is just a smaller facet of something larger: the fact I don’t like too much explicit and draconian structure. This isn’t surprising as it manifests in many parts of my life. As an example, in work it manifests as having just enough project management and managing through principles rather than slavish rules. I tend to think once you have to resort to draconian measure to enforce something rather than the attitudes of everyone involved you’ve sort of already failed.

In a role-playing game it manifests as the rules not being prescriptive about how the game should play out.

In the tradition of giving an example, this is why I don’t like systems like Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel. Mouse Guard offers a repetitive and highly structured template on how each session should play out. This never works for me. I like things to have a sense of change and excitement, not be the same phases played out each time. Burning Wheel, and Mouse Guard, also suffer from the problem of trying to control player extremes in the game. This goes rubs against my manage by principles not slavish rules approach and I find very annoying to have rules in place to micro-manage and moderate player behaviour.

If I was to be truly honest I find it annoying on an insulting level and it really grates.

…And, Finally

I guess the conclusion to this is I like games which represent my approach to life. I want role-playing games that do flag the stories your character is designed to experience but it must be my choice. I want the rules to allow that story to flourish while assuming that the players are all well meaning adults and don’t need their bad habits moderated and curtailed by the rules. I certainly don’t want games that are very prescriptive about my character without it being my choice.

I must admit when I started this I didn’t realise what I liked in games was reflected so much in other areas of my life but I guess this is to be expected.

I could have probably done the much shorter version of this and said my high locus of control and independent nature manifests at the gaming table.

About Ian O'Rourke

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