Game Ponderings: What Makes One Game Compelling?

Over the weekend I started looking at a couple of game books for review and became almost entranced by the richness of the settings – Shadows of Esteren and the Midgard Campaign Setting. I’m not ready to write those reviews yet as I’m still enjoying getting lost in those worlds, but I wanted to ponder a bit to see if I could figure out why they’re so compelling. Personally I think it boils down to story or the potential for story.

“Story” is one of those words we throw out a lot as GMs. For me, story is more about what happened than what is happening around the game table right now. Each PC and NPC, monster, place, or item likely has a story. But the game table is less about what has happened and more about what is happening or might happen.

Even so, story is extremely important to every great game I’ve participated in. It’s the ground upon which our characters walk virtually. If you’re dealing with a fantasy or mythic world, you have a creation myth that explains how the world came to be, complete with gods and heroes. Tales of kingdoms rising and falling involve mythic struggles and epic battles. Cataclysms and disasters offer even more crunch, in case that wasn’t enough. And then you have your usual ends, beginnings, and everything in-between.

These are all things a good character or monster can build on. A cleric can call upon the many holy saints that came before him. A fighter can call upon ancestors strong and mighty. A thief can learn all the tricks of the trade from the thieves who came before. A wizard can learn spells big and small created by the mages and scholars of old…

Without that ground, the world is largely flat. You can’t have an elven ranger called Legolas without a kingdom of elves. You can’t have a Bond villain without a world to conquer or destroy. Well… I guess you could, but they’d both come across pretty indistinct with little motivation to save the world or destroy it.

So how do we get this background upon which to tell new stories and keep it compelling?

Honestly I think it comes down to two main elements. Like muscle growing over a skeletal system, you need attachment points. The two I’d key off of would be “place” and “people”.

That’s what sticks out to me about why Esteren and Midgard are so compelling. There’s a history of both parts of the equation – place and people. Esteren has hundreds of years of history, as does Midgard. The people of these worlds come in every shape and size, follow different faiths and beliefs, fight to survive against impossible odds. These are the attachments to which a player can build a PC upon and that a GM can use to build plots, NPCs, and give it the spark at life at their gaming tables.

I’m excited to dive into these worlds again and again, to see what doors of adventure are left to open…

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