Toybox vs. Playground

It's time for some game design theory.

So, I've been thinking a lot about tabletop game design lately, and in particular about the types of roleplaying games that do grab me as a player and designer and the type that don't.

And mostly, the type that I like are the kind that are very popular but not very trendy. 

I prefer a game like Dungeons and Dragons, where you have a bunch (hopefully a good, large bunch) of different character concepts and other pieces you can put together, and each one is defined with some degree of specificity, and the rules are mostly concerned with what the different pieces can do. 

In a game like that, if there's a character option called something like "weather wizard", it will include a list of specific things this allows you to do, along with brief rules for how they work.

I like this better than a game like a Fate, where you have a rule set that lets you define your character more or less from scratch and if you say your character is a "weather wizard" then that means you get some kind of idea in your head about what that means and what you can do with it, and the specifics are sort of negotiated in play between you and the game runner, mediated by dice and best improv practices.

Sometimes people who know me are surprised by my tastes, because... hey, I'm a creative person. I like making up my own things. If I start writing something as fanfic, it doesn't usually take me long to spin it off into something else because even if there's an existing character or setting inspiring me I wind up wanting to color way outside the lines.

So surely I must prefer the freeform creativity of something like Fate to the strictures and structures of something like D&D, right? Character classes are just training wheels, right?

When I approach tabletop design, I often find myself shying away from my own preferences sort of preemptively. Not all the way, but a little bit, and then a bit more. It's unusual for me. I'm not exactly famous for moderating myself in response to what other people think about me. I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm sensitive about what people think of my roleplaying game designs in particular, when I don't care much what they think of anything else I do creatively, and when I'm certainly curmudgeonly enough in defense of them.

So lately, as I kind of gird myself to attempt some serious acts of game design again, I've found myself thinking about... well, a less condescending and slanted way to describe the difference between the type of RPG that Dungeons & Dragons is and the type that Fate is. Sort of a continuum along the line of "more narrativist/less narrativist" but not focused on that specific aspect.

And the more I think about what I like about the "give me things to play with" style of game design, the more I realize: that's really it.

Dungeons & Dragons gives you things to play with. It's like a toybox, full of figures and accessories, and you can go wild with creativity in terms of figuring out what to do with them, but they are there and they're concrete. You don't have to use them all in exactly the way the toymakers intended, but you've at least got a starting place.

Then something like Fate gives you space to play in. It's like a playground. There's some structures, like a jungle gym and a slide and a merry-go-round, and you can play any kind of game you want on those structures, pretend to be any kind of character you want to be on those structures, and you can make those structures into a castle or rocket ship or cave or anything you need them to be, but you don't have all the same ready-made pieces as the toybox gives you.

And to be clear, I'm not saying either approach is superior, and also to be clear, I'm not saying any game is all one way or the other. It's a spectrum. I'm using D&D and Fate as examples but I don't think either one is necessarily the most perfect, pure example of their respective ends of the scale. D&D has playground structures, too. Fate does give you some toys, especially when you start getting into setting-specific games powered by it.

But that's the framework I'm going to use, because it makes it clear that one is not more advanced or more mature than the other. They're both just different ways to approach imaginative play. 

And when it comes to a roleplaying game, I just greatly prefer the one where you can look at all the pieces spread out on the floor and start getting ideas about how they might go together, all the cool things you might do with them. I don't need rules or a game or other players to engage in an act of freeform creativity; if I'm going to be playing a game with other people (including running one for them), I would prefer that everybody has a chance to have a clear idea of what's on the table, what's possible, what their character can be and what their character can do. 

I know the "let's figure it out, what does 'bard' mean to you?" approach can be fun. But I think it also can be more fraught. It takes a higher investment of rapport to work well. It kind of exacerbates the almost axiomatic tendency that players who are more confident and assertive will wind up doing more and cooler stuff when the other players can't look at a sheet or a spell card or a rule and go, "Wait... I think I can... can I do something with this here? It says I can fascinate an audience. Would that be helpful here?", much less just declare "I cast Thunderwave" because they looked that one up and they know it will be useful.

But even while I'm explaining why I like toybox play better than playground play, I'm still not saying toybox play is better. Somebody could make the argument that the playground is more approachable than the toybox because there's less to learn, that you don't have know what somebody else thought a "Paladin" should be if you're able to thresh it out for yourself.

And I don't think that perspective is wrong, either.

It's just not mine.

You know, I like a game that has a nice high ratio of sandbox to rails... that is, where players are free to explore the world and pursue their own agendas instead of merely being forced to move from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, in order, on schedule. I prefer creating my own campaign settings in Dungeons & Dragons rather than using the popular commercial ones. I'm fine with threshing out creative applications for a class feature or spell that isn't exactly by the book, though I think I might be less "yes, and..." about that kind of thing than is super trendy. 

My point is that embracing a game where character design and adventure design involve a lot of taking somebody else's ideas about rangers and elves and running with them, it isn't not freeform. There's always going to be freeform creativity in making a character, making a setting, playing a character, running a game.

The type of game you're using just determines where the starting line is for the freeform part. Whether a given placement of said line represents a head start for creativity or a setback is really a matter of perspective, so at the end of the day it really comes down to: 

What do you like?

What do you want to do?

And what works best for what you want to do?

For me, the best solution is almost always going to be more on the toybox side of the equation.

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