I like vanilla ice cream. I have for a very long time. Before I knew my alphabet, much less how to read, I knew that hearing my older brother spell out “I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M” meant that I should start asking Mom for ice cream too. Better yet, as I got older and discovered the joys of living in Vermont (home of Ben & Jerry’s before it was bought out by Unilever), I learned that there were far more flavors of ice cream available, and that many of them were exceedingly tasty as well.
When I was little, I played make-believe all the time. A number of my friends simply couldn’t understand the appeal, and stopped playing with me, but at the tender age of seven my older brothers harnessed my ambitions and introduced me to 2nd Edition AD&D. My introduction might actually have been earlier, but that year was the first time I can remember staying up until midnight to play RPGs with them. Over the next few years, I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade (along with a bundle of other White Wolf games), D&D’s 3rd Edition, In Nomine, and GURPS. More other games followed. Just like with ice cream, I had discovered a whole new world of flavors to choose from. I was very nearly overwhelmed by my enthusiasm. These days, some people refer to me as an RPG snob. I much prefer the term ‘connoisseur’: through dedicated consumption, I have built an appreciation for the inherent flavors of different game systems.
But what the heck do I mean by “flavor”? And how do you figure out what a game’s flavor is?
When I say “flavor,” I’m talking about the focus of the game’s mechanics (if any) and the ways that the game’s mechanics effect our expectations about gameplay. I’m also talking about the system’s preferred genres, and any story that has found its way into the game. Let me elaborate.
Any given game system will impact your experience of the game itself. Many come with built-in expectations of play, expectations which are often not articulated clearly to people who are just starting to play for the first time. For example, most varieties of Dungeons & Dragons encourage a semi-adversarial relationship with the storyteller and offer games that are full of combat, because they encourage storytellers to withhold information from their players and are specifically geared towards providing rules for fighting. Those games work pretty well that way. Dogs in the Vineyard, on the other hand, encourages a somewhat more cooperative relationship between storyteller and players (partly because storytellers are specifically told to share information with the players), and it emphasizes finding conflict everywhere, by virtue of using the same elaborate conflict resolution mechanic for conversation, physical labor, and murder.
The most straightforward way to identify a game’s flavor is to just play it for a while. But you can also usually get some sort of handle on how the game’s system will shape play experience by examining its mechanics, and especially by looking at the game’s character sheet.
Character sheets will tell you a lot about a game system’s flavor, specifically because they tell you what’s important to the game system. The lack of a character sheet is a pretty big sign that things are diverging from the norm (e.g. collaborative storytelling systems like Microscope or Fiasco), but even just paying attention to the attributes listed will tell you a lot. Many games will try to describe a character’s physical and mental capabilities, yet some add additional complexity. Call of Cthulhu, for example, has Sanity as an attribute. Vampire: The Masquerade showcases blood-pool and Humanity ratings, along with things like your Nature and Demeanor. Unknown Armies keeps things fairly simple with Body, Speed, Mind, and Soul, but also has a series of Madness Meters. Each of these extra details tells you something about the particular focus of the game.
Looking at some of the above examples in greater detail, if I sit down to a game of Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies I know I’m signing up to be faced with mind-bending weirdness and potentially disquieting situations. The Sanity and Madness stats make it clear that role-playing my slowly crumbling mental stability and acting out the stresses that my character is undergoing are all part of the deal. In fact, because the various Madness Meters on the UA character sheet are labelled, I can even guess that I’ll end up in situations that are violent and/or unnatural, and which may leave me feeling helpless, feeling isolated, or questioning my sense of self. Not bad for just having looked at a character sheet.
Not every system’s flavor is easily found on a character sheet. The flavor of GURPS, for example, is a generality which might be hard to identify without having played the game yourself. Apocalypse World’s flavor, on the other hand, is built around genre and narrative expectations that should be nearly impossible to miss by the time that you’ve read through the introduction, and should be abundantly clear by the time that you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic rules.
GURPS showcases its generality on nearly every level, with an abstract representation of reality that is meant to coherently and more or less accurately model a tremendous spectrum of settings and material. Furthermore, it tries to make every element in the system internally compatible while simultaneously fulfilling your expectations of how such things would work in the real world: guns are dangerous, impaling weapons will really hurt and generally cause you to bleed out, vacuum is bad for your health, etc. You might say that the flavor of the system IS its attempt at semi-accurate universality. The central design of GURPS encourages players to consider their characters as bundles of skills, abilities, and drawbacks, but in its generality the system says relatively little about how any given character should interact with the world around them.
Apocalypse World, on the other hand, is an abstract specialist. It focuses on a very specific genre and experience of gameplay, on giving players influence over the narrative, and on doing its best to find and expand on conflict in the everyday lives of the characters. In its abstraction, it makes little attempt to model reality beyond the necessary step of giving players ways to reliably interact with the fiction. Apocalypse World’s design emphasizes players’ choice in the progression of the story and narrative, and that emphasis on choice extends to all of the various hacks and mods which have been made with the Apocalypse World game-engine. Moves, the basic method of players’ mechanical interaction with the system and the game world, are structured to force players to make decisions about what results (good and bad) come out of their actions rather than simply testing a character’s skill to see whether or not they succeed. Sometimes this focus on choice means picking things that you like and sometimes it means picking things that you don’t, but the players’ choices nearly always get to shape what happens.
Apocalypse World also encourages characters to conform to fairly negative expectations of behavior, by virtue of only providing mechanics for manipulating, bribing, and bullying each other. There are few ways to behave positively towards other people and mechanically enforce a desired result, so players are generally only ever one step away from starting conflict with each other in an effort to get what they want. This is a very intentional design decision, and is part of what drives the game’s focus on conflict and story.
Taking a quick jaunt back to D&D (let’s use 4th Edition), how do we know that we should expect combat in any given game? The character sheet, rules, and character class sections all make it fairly clear that the game is supposed to be about fighting, by virtue of focusing almost exclusively on rules that apply when you fight. Character class entries, for example, are almost entirely made up of abilities which are intended to be used in combat. This isn’t to say that you can’t use the system to do things other than fight; perhaps your storyteller is comfortable with D&D and instead wants to use it to run a game about intrigue and political infighting, which is perfectly reasonable. I simply mean that the main attention of the system is devoted to combat mechanics, and many games will tend to default towards that.
Every edition of D&D that I’ve played focuses on combat as an integral element of the gameplay. Some editions leave more room for other things to influence gameplay, while others have focused almost exclusively on streamlining every element that isn’t about fighting until they can be mostly glossed over at need. 2nd Ed. AD&D, for all its clunkiness, clearly had conceptual room in the system for dealing with problems without fighting (as can be attested by the wide variety of spells which had little direct combat use). By comparison, 4th Ed. D&D deals with almost nothing except combat. While it offers a number of specialized and relatively balanced combat roles with its various classes, your choice of what character class to play (barbarian, wizard, thief, etc.) says more about how you want to fight people than it says about what sort of person your character is. Narrative is subsumed by the desire to focus on providing a balanced combat experience for all players regardless of their class choice.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned before, Dogs in the Vineyard treats all types of conflict the same way. Each player engages with the game as a part-time narrator, with the only distinction between different kinds of conflict (talking, physical exertion, murderous violence) being how much risk you face when things go poorly for you. Much like GURPS, however, Dogs’ flavor is only really apparent once you’ve started playing it; the system is too unlike most others for its flavor to be easily parsed at first blush.
This post has now diverged several times from my original concept, so I hope that it holds together well enough as it stands. Perhaps you’ll find it of some use when trying to consider what type of game you’re most interested in playing at the moment. Or maybe it will help you to see that there are other systems besides the first ones to which you were introduced, systems which promise all sorts of strange utility through the inner workings of their systems. And as always, if you have an idea for what else might be useful on this topic, please drop me a line in the comments below.