So, first and more important things first: just because I’m doing the #rpgaday #rpgaday2017 posts does not mean I’m ignoring or suggesting that others ignore the truly horrific shit going down in our own country. This is self-care. I’m doing what I can in the real world as well. This stuff may seem trivial, and it is, but it’s also sanity-keeping.
Adapting existing games is a cultural thing I wish I saw more of in indieland, but I think there are good reasons we don’t. Yes, okay, we have Fate and Cortex Plus and Archipelago, but I really don’t think of prepping generic engines for play as “adaptation” in any way that’s meaningful for today’s question. I feel like we’re talking more about taking specific games and retooling them for specific purposes.
I also don’t really think of the fire hose of PbtA games as “adaptation,” mostly because that seems largely tied up into the Kickstarter model, where money is the motivating factor. It’s not the DIY aesthetic that I, personally, am reading into today’s question.
So, huge props to the OSR scene for pushing casual adaptation so hard. Then again, the D&D OGL is an extraordinarily easy game to adapt. You can do up a pretty, hm…unambitious D&D hack that will work perfectly well, yeah? Meanwhile, except for the PbtA publishing scene, I think adapting small press games is frequently quite hard to do well.
I’ve got this theory as to why. Hear me out, it has a few steps. The theory goes:
1) There are broad schools of thought about what games are for. Players engage with those schools of thought in one way, facilitators in another, and designers in yet a third. I don’t think that’s super controversial. But let me dodge controversy entirely and not get into definition wars or Big Model references. None of that. We can totally just call those schools A and B. There are of course more than just two!
2) There are strong advocates for both A style games and B style games.
3) Those advocates are perfectly happy playing their category of game, and that happiness is its own incentive to play.
4) Most of the games I, personally, think of as “indiegames” actually straddle A and B, with the designers motivated for evangelical reasons. They do it by building incentivizing procedural cycles that speak to A and B players. Incentives like decentralized creative input, or reward cycles that touch various parts of play that traditional XP/advancement schemes do not.
It’s these bridge games that I think are wicked-hard to hack. Mostly because the majority of hackers are not sensitive to the actual function of the games they’re hacking (example: see the Das Boot game someone suggested using Night Witches). Either they’re hacking a game to make it more like their preferred style, or they have a huge blind spot to other styles of play.
I think it’s a pretty common desire to hack Burning Wheel, for example. It’s my strongest example of a bridge game: it looks like it plays like any traditional RPG you can think of, but it has incentives to push some decidedly non-traditional things. And it’s all that extra scaffolding that makes the game so, so hard to hack well.
Or PbtA orthodoxy! Vincent Baker himself has said that Apocalypse World is a trad game. He’s being coy, like he always is, because any crusty old gamer can tell you that Apocalypse World offers up a lot of really weird mechanical shit. It is, IMO, quite hard to hack well (and very easy to slap together some kind of something)! That is, unless you understand both A and B styles and see the bridge technologies for what they are.
There are lots of deep-in-the-weeds storygames that would be trivial to hack because they just don’t have the bridge technology. Those games don’t need to bridge over one kind of player into another kind of play. Freeforms, for example, have barely any mechanisms at all, because if you’re playing them in good faith you don’t need to be incentivized. The characterization and the feels are their own reward. As long as there’s some kind of procedure to freshen up the situation with new and unexpected inputs, they can run forever.
So I guess I think of those games as either a bell curve or a two-circle Venn. On one end or circle you’ve got pure trad play that assumes XPs and straight-line advancement but those aren’t even incentivizing, it’s just what happens when your bildungsroman hero spends time being heroic. Then you’ve got the other end or circle that assumes character and narrative development and doesn’t require any incentivization because it’s just what happens as stories progress. And right in the middle of the bell, or right between the two circles, are all these very hard-to-hack games because they’re full of incentive-oriented reward cycles that are easy to misinterpret or misunderstand, depending on your blind spots.
Mind you none of this has to do with stances or creative agendas. It’s just the air we breathe.
tl;dr So to answer the actual question: I prefer to play games as written. And if I don’t like how it’s written, my urge to adapt is so small that it’s always easier to just drop it and move on. But for game-design reasons (as opposed to casual DIY hacking), PbtA orthodoxy gives me a nice toolbox. I’m also very interested in doing something with Cortex Plus at some point, because it sure seems to deliver what I wish Fate did. The Cortex Hacker’s Guide is one of the best volumes dedicated just to adaptation I’ve ever read.