The Elements of the Game
In this article, we will be exploring the core elements of our FU-based games, Equinox (using the Equinox Storygame Guide) and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend. We will identify the thoughts behind the game design, going beyond the unique resolution mechanics that only appear to be at the center of it all.
When composing adventures in traditional roleplaying games, many gamemasters approach design from an event-centered point of view, trying to arrange events happening in the adventures into a pre-determined order. However, even with a few triggers and if/else combinations, the structure of adventures written this way is very rigid. Such a rigid structure makes it hard for the gamemaster to adapt the adventure to his players’ needs, often leading to frustration when railroading them to his intended goal or shutting their ideas down until they have one that meet his line of thinking.
Sounds familiar? We have all been there at some point.
Adventure preparation in the Equinox Storygame and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend comes with a different approach in mind and was designed to produce more organic results. To translate this into an image, think of a plant growing in a simple pot. The seed of your plant represents you and your group, with the soil in the pot representing the setting in which you play in, and the pot representing the rules. The preparation of the game is what happens below the surface, and the actual gameplay coming out of it happens above. We like this example, because every group and every game is different (just like seeds and plants)—but the things you need to do to get results are virtually the same (gaming or gardening).
With that image in mind, let’s start with the roots!
The core elements of the game comprise three different roots, all of them equally important: the collaboratively designed Stage, the group's overall Motivation, and each character’s Drives.
When preparing a game using the Equinox Storygame or Earthdawn: The Age of Legend, the first thing you do is Setting the Stage. You and your group design the background in which you will play together within the larger setting of the game world. Each aspect of the stage provides adventure hooks the gamemaster can pick up and build upon, while the players invest themselves into adding features to the stage they would like to see in the game.
The group's overall motivation sets down the basic theme of the game and gives direction to the adventures the group is going to play. A group of explorers sent out to the astral realms in order to find places to settle plays differently than a group of kaer-delvers searching the darkest caverns for treasure. A group haunted by a Horror or Demon, looking for a way to get rid of its curse, plays differently than a group of royal investigators paid to solve magical crimes or a squad of troubleshooters keeping the peace on a space station.
Each character is designed with a central motivation in mind. By answering the four questions about your character (Where do you come from?, What do you want? , What is stopping you? and What will you do?), you define the basics of your character's story arc for the next few adventures. At some point down the road, you will have achieved your goals and fulfilled your Drives, and you will adopt new ones to continue playing.
The roots grow quickly and are woven tightly together—every element has an influence on the other two, which is exactly as intended! The resulting game is better and stronger because of this tight connection.
But wait—where is the story and where is the plot? Aren't these supposed to be core elements of the game too? Both the Equinox Storygame and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend are advertised as storygames, right?
That is correct, but not in the traditional manner. Right now you have a seeded and watered plant pot sitting in the sun, growing roots. At the point you and your group start playing, the actual plant emerges, representing the game itself.
So the plot and the story are the result of all this and are constantly fed by the roots. The gamemaster (as well as the players) now ensure that the plant remains healthy and grows into the shape they collectively desire.
That said, when preparing a game for the Equinox Storygame and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend, the gamemaster doesn't focus on the events he wants to happen and how the story is resolved—he is actually forbidden to do this by the rules!
Instead, he focuses on the roots to find out what the players want their characters to do when chasing down their individual and mutual interests:
The stage and the group formed by the players provides a theme and a common background—full of juicy hooks the gamemaster cannot ignore if he wants the players to continue working together towards a common goal. If this central theme isn't served and the characters cannot do what they are supposed to do, the players will eventually lose interest in the game.
Each character is bringing his or her own story arc, filled with tasty story hooks the gamemaster must pick up in some form to keep the player invested in the game. Without the character progressing in his arc—being able to chase and eventually meet his personal goals—the player will soon get frustrated.
The events that happen during the game provide more material upon which to build. These grow organically out of the running game and have an impact on the characters, the group, and the stage. Updating each of these roots continuously is what keeps the game fresh and healthy!
Preparing the game involves uniting all these things. The gamemaster adds new threats, locations, characters and adversaries, and so on—to throw in rocks and sticks in the characters’ paths, making each arc interesting and compelling to follow through. The plans of his villains naturally clash with the wants and needs of the group, posing a threat to the established stage.
It is completely legit (and sometimes outright necessary!) to let the players run into a pre-planned event or two to establish or maintain direction in the game. However, treat this like the gardening technique of pruning—overdo it and the plant will be damaged. Remember, your job is not to build a plant, but to grow one!
In essence, the gamemaster’s moderation of the game boils down to creating scenes in which the players star, making sure each and every one of them is challenged and gets a chance to shine. As the gamemaster, you have the power to set the focus of each scene and use pacing to steer the game forward. While it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent the game from grinding to a halt and becoming a lesson in boredom, the gamemaster is the one beating the drums.
Finally, the game mechanics found in the Equinox Storygame and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend serve as boundary for the game—the actual pot to complete our metaphor of roots, soil, and a plant. Pots come in many shapes and sizes, just like roleplaying game rules. But we won’t be diving into full-blown examples comparing flower pots and game systems. Instead, we’ll end by describing the underlying mindset of the rules:
The rules in the Equinox Storygame and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend leave a lot of room for interpretation. The core resolution mechanic, the beat-the-odds roll, serves as the prime example, setting the tone for all other mechanics in the books. Setting up and interpreting the dice requires common sense as well as a good understanding of the workings of the game world. The same is true for every talent description, every spell description, and every piece of equipment and gear you find in the game. The need for interpretation is—as opposed to the more detailed rules in traditional roleplaying games—not a bug. It’s a core feature of the game.
Why is that so? Wouldn’t it be better to add more definitions so that everyone can play by the same rules? How does this support storytelling?
The ability to bend the rules and interpret them in a way that suits your group’s tastes is the big advantage these games have over computer games and some of the more laboriously detailed traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Instead of having to bend your collective imaginations to a hard-coded detail (for example, “humans can move 10 meters per combat round, which is exactly six seconds long”), you run with what is plausible for everyone at the table. Interpretation ensures the rules don’t stand in the way.
Of course, this naturally leads to more discussions at the table. That’s both good and bad: good because it deepens everyone’s understanding of the game and setting, as well as shaping the tone of the game; bad because such discussions can consume precious game time.
There is a different perspective, however. Taking time to discuss the pros and cons of a task in a given situation is not always a bad thing, because it allows everyone to uncover circumstances that weren’t entirely obvious right away. There is fun to be found in that, but the sweet spot is different in every group and situation.
The rules assume your group can achieve group consensus quickly and easily, and that you’re able to identify your group’s sweet spot without much trouble. The trick here is to find the right balance where everyone is comfortable with the play speed and the decisions made. If that is not the case, you can default to assign more power to the gamemaster—or some other “last word”-method with which everyone is comfortable.