Why are some games so hard to understand?

Over the years I’ve encountered dozens of games which are highly popular, are supposedly easy to learn, but I just can’t wrap my head around them.

One reason was probably that I grew up with pretty traditional roleplaying games, while most of the games I had trouble with were definitely more “indie”. But this couldn’t have been the only reason. But for quite a while I never realized why I had a hard time getting into games like Fate or Apocalypse world.

While I am still having trouble, I at least think I’ve found out what my main problem is. I overanalyze and overthink everything. Especially with Fate this still kicks me in the nuts when I try to run it. Skills are fine, Approaches (like in FAE) are mostly so, but Aspects always make my head spin, especially when it comes to situational Aspects.

In fact Aspects are pretty easy. If a room has the aspect “Pitch Black” it just establishes a fact. In traditional games, we actually establish facts as well, we just don’t write that down on an index card (which you can do in Fate to remind you of said fact) or give those facts special names. Invoking an aspect for example is just making use of the fact. For example you get a +2 bonus to hide in the room. That’s not much different how you do things in other games. But instead of having a rule for every possible circumstance, Fate uses a slightly more abstract approach. Which is actually not that hard to get…

… BUT for some reason my brain wants to make things more complicated. It’s actually pretty hard to put into words, because it’s all a bit fuzzy, but I tend to look for a deeper meaning or something more complex which just can’t be found, because it isn’t there.

I don’t know if it’s just me or if this happens to other gamers as well. So please share your thoughts below. And if you have good tips on how to avoid overthinking everything, please share those with us!

Making Stuff up As We Go Along

My favorite GMing style has always been “making stuff up as we go along” which means I basically improvised from start to finish instead of doing some prep work before the game. Depending on the setting you’re playing in and the system you’re using this can either be awesome or a terrible trainwreck of a game session. Luckily it worked fine for most of my games.

Especially Numenera by Monte Cook supports this GMing style perfectly. The world is weird and mysterious, you never know what lurks behind the next corner or beyond the next hill. Usually I just came up with a very simple setup and then started improvising.

In one game the player characters stumbled upon a small settlement in dire need of help. People kept disappearing and noone has even noticed the culprits responsible for it. That was basically what I had prepared before the game. I also decided that I wanted something from the past responsible for it. So I came up with a crashed spaceship which was buried underground. At this point I had no idea how the story could progress. Using my imagination and guided by the players’ actions I improvised the whole adventure. Everyone had a blast and the players never expected that I didn’t prepare the scenario beforehand.

BUT this approach has its issues. If you are not at the top of your game an inprovised session may quickly derail into a disaster. Things get worse if you are having doubts about your ability to improvise.  Even with my depression and anxiety issues I still have good days where I can improvise the heck out of any game. But on bad days – which are more often lately – I feel a lot of pressure. I’ve had to cancel games after the first session because I was terrified of running the game. So I am now thinking about trying a new approach.

At first I should give Never Unprepared and Odyssey another read. Especially Never Unprepared gives great advice on how to prep a game without going nuts about it. Back in the day when I started taking up the GM’s mantle, I tried to prepare for everything. Sometimes I planned endlessly on a single adventure which in the end I never even ran. As I grew more confident as a GM I quickly started to improvise more and more up until the point where I am now.

I guess I should find a middle ground between improvising everything to preparing everything. Since I just took a break from running games I now have the time and opportunity to think about how to do things in the future. At the moment I am really looking forward to making a change, learn some new skills and become a better GM. I’ve done this for about 20 years now, but I think there’s still much to learn.

P.S.: The featured image on this post is called “Improvisation 26” and was painted by famous artist Vassily Kandinsky in 1912.

Ask The Readers: Can You Recommend Any GM-Less Games?

In my last post I talked about my plan to take a break from running games. But this doesn’t mean I want to stop playing. but taking on the GM’s mantle feels like a burden to me right now. The players from my group are currently not interested in running games themselves, so I thought about an alternative.

Here you guys come into the equation. Please help me find a GM-less roleplaying game to try out with my group. I already own Fiasco, which sounds like a lot of fun. The other game I’ve checked out is Remember Tomorrow which feels closer to regular roleplaying instead of the story game approach taken by Fiasco.

I am sure there are other games like this out there, BUT since I have no experience with GM-less games, I ask you to provide me with some advice. What games would you recommend? If you have played such games can you please provide some feedback? Every comment is highly appreciated!

A Roleplaying Games blog