What is fun, baby don't hurt me

This particular entry is not about writing stories, but telling them together, through the medium of tabletop games. Now I know it might seem weird for a huge nerd who writes stories about fantastical things to be interested in pretending to be an elf or robot for hours at a time, but you’ll just have to trust me when I say it can be a heaping pile of fun. However, like most fun things in this life, there’s a sort of gradient of fun involved. There are things which can accentuate, and also hinder, the process of having fun.

When you’re with a bunch of random strangers, that can hinder the fun. There’s nothing like the abject dread you feel when someone announces their character is a mix of three characters from popular television shows, all of which by Joss Whedon, and proceeds to give you an excessive and unnecessary level of detail about their physical appearance. It’s a combination of not wanting to be there, and wanting to be literally anywhere else. Gaming with friends is fun though, and usually doesn’t involve listening to people’s weird personal issues made manifest in the form of a paladin who tries to smite every woman he sees.

But the big hindrance to fun, the barrier that comes up most of the time when I play, is the system. This is because I have cool friends, who won’t make terrible characters like child soldiers who killed their own parents, but I also have a predilection to trying things which aren’t good for me. For more evidence of the latter, see how often I’ll eat spicy foods despite having no tolerance for them.

Game systems (the tabletop kind, not the plug-into-your-television kind) are basically a structure of rules which stop you from sitting around a table making up whatever you feel like. They’re what make fights interesting tactical skirmishes, by limiting what you can do at any given time. You must manage your resources, both in combat and out of it, making choices as to what your best move should be with the skills your character has. It’s great!

Assuming your character has skills and choices to work with. There are some systems, naming no names (but heavily implying), which seem to think that fun is something you have to earn. This is a dangerous error. Success needs to be earned, make no mistake about that. You can’t just be handed the win on a silver platter. But fun? You should be having fun right off the bat. You shouldn’t need to play through a whole campaign as a sword-swinging barbarian only to find out that actually you’d be having much more fun as a wizard because wizards get to do all the fun things.

That’s called balance, and some people, the types you’d not want to associate with, think of balance as being a big evil which stops characters from stepping into the spotlight. “When everyone’s special,” they misquote, “nobody is.” Except I’m pretty sure there’s a huge world full of dirtfarming peasants and other townsfolk who aren’t special, and who aren’t being controlled by the players, so it doesn’t matter if their lot in life is to run screaming from the dragon. The last thing you want is to watch your friend flip through a literal book of spells, picking out one that sounds super cool, and then having to say “I’ll do the same thing I did every turn before this one and hit it with my sword.”

Fun is a nebulous creature, and it’s often hard to pin down what makes things fun. I’ve had fun sitting quietly, I’ve had fun shouting like a maniac. Things which stress me out can also be things that are fun, but rarely at the exact same time. The point is, never assume that something is Officially 100% Fun just because you, at that moment, are having fun with it. Just because someone once had a rip-roaring time as Jim the Fighter, whose notable accomplishments included falling into a pit of spikes in the first turn of combat and accidentally cutting his own leg off with a battleaxe, doesn’t mean that everyone else would have as much fun trying to play a heroic warrior and ending up with an incompetent one-legged pincushion.

That being said, standing in the spotlight isn’t always a sure-fire guarantee for fun. My characters always seem to wind up being supporting roles. Whether they’re a wise mentor or the comedy relief, it’s fun to let someone else be the princess-in-hiding or the chosen hero. At least, it is for me, and that’s why me and my friends can have fun together. I can be the mystic sage, they can be the sword-wielding priestess, and it’s all good because we have things we can do.

So if you want to measure how fun a system can be, see what it lets everyone do, and push that to its limits by playing roles you haven’t considered before. A really great system will allow the comedy relief to contribute as much as the protagonist in any given situation, even though one’s a short-circuiting robot and the other’s an ace starfighter pilot. Speaking purely objectively, sure, that robot’s probably not going to have the same level of competence. But it’s not about the objective aspects, it’s about the narrative aspects. My robot’s bumbling should be a talent of its own that opens up new opportunities, not a weight around my neck. If I’ve got to “learn to pick a better character” in order to have fun, then that system isn’t for me.

In the future, I’ll be putting out material of my own for various game systems, and maybe even designing a couple of them myself. When that happens, I can only hope that you’ll all find them fun.