“What is your game about?” Your first reaction, the most obvious one, is to talk about the setting of the game—the elevator pitch. Hydro Hackers has an elevator pitch that I think does a pretty good job answering that question (see the end of the article). Let’s go one level deeper, and we can ask that same question about what the themes and tropes of the game are. As a Powered by the Apocalypse style game, H2O has an Agenda and Principles which answer this question. But if we go one more level deeper, there is another answer to this question, which might be better stated as “What is the culture your game creates at the table?” That is what we are going to look at . . . the table culture of a game.
What is Table Culture?
If you know me, you know I like definitions—and I am not afraid to coin them when I need to. This time is no different. Let’s start with a generic definition:
Culture: The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.
For the definition we need in this article, the organization is the group of players (GMs are players) who play a game. With that our definition now becomes:
Table Culture: The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes the group of players who play a game.
That will do.
This means that different games and different game systems have their own cultures. In other words, different games produce different practices, attitudes, etc when played. The players of the game then demonstrate their culture as they play the game, when they talk about the game, etc.
We can see this in different games: Savage World players have a custom of calling themselves Savages. The OSR values a DIY approach to gaming, with their use of house rules and zines. Powered by the Apocalypse players value things like being fans of the players, and the goal of playing to see what happens.
So games have cultures, with all the good and bad that come from them. They can create a home for people, but they can gate-keep or ostracize people. They can create unity and be a source of identification, but they can also cause clashes with other cultures as well. This means that as game designers, we have a responsibility to consider the culture our games will create.
How is table culture conveyed?
The table culture of a game starts at the rulebook. The rulebook is the source document that will be read by the players, which will create a new culture. Without being insulting, it is akin to the Bible (please don’t read deeper than the most surface of comparisons). It contains the source material which is then put into practice within the church and congregation. The rulebook does the same thing. It is the source information that is then put into practice at the gaming table with the group.
The table culture of the game is expressed in a number of ways throughout the rulebook:
- Text – The general text of the book, how it is written, the use of pronouns, the inclusion of a safety chapter or a chapter on inclusivity.
- Art – What kind of art is being shown. Is there diversity and representation? Have we avoided stereotypes and cliches?
- Fiction – Similar to Art, does our in-game fiction show diversity and have good representation? How do the characters behave – are they combative and aggressive, or thoughtful and cautious?
- Mechanics – What rules have we created around what activities, and how many rules have we created to support them. Does our game rely on violent solutions to conflicts or have we presented other choices?
- Examples – In our example text are we showing the mannerisms we want to be seen in the game? Are we making sure everyone gets an equal voice? Are we showing how to handle the delicate situations in our game? Or are we just showing how different rules resolve?
<Climbing on my soapbox and addressing my fellow designers>
As game designers, we need to stop and think about the culture that will form around this game, and then make sure the rulebook supports this. In fact, we need to do this in a deliberate manner. We need to go beyond just talking about how the rules work and what the setting includes. We need to be clear about our stances on how we expect the table to run when the game is played. We need to be explicit about inclusion and diversity and not expect the readers of the book to “put their own spin on it”.
Just at it is our responsibility to teach the rules of the game, and to empower the GM to effectively run a game, we have an equal responsibility to convey how we want our games to be played, and the culture we are trying to foster.
</Gets off of the soapbox>
What is H2O’s Table Culture?
As I am getting ready to make the push to finish the manuscript, I have been giving this some thought. What are my expectations for the culture of Hydro Hacker Operative players? I have been brainstorming and here is what I am thinking about (by no means finished or in its entirety) . . .
- Violence is not the best tool
- There is strength in collaboration and diversity
- There is beauty in diversity
- Everyone’s voice is heard
- Oppression is evil and not to be celebrated
- Resistance against oppression is necessary
- There is humor and love even in the darkest of times
These are things I want expressed in the rulebook and also at the table. So the big question is . . .
How is that going to be expressed?
I think that the first thing I am going to do is to put the final list of objectives right into the game and state it upfront and clearly. This is what this game is about, and this is how I hope it is played at the table.
The next thing I am going to do is make sure that the text, including the fiction and the examples, is supporting these ideas. Most of those parts are not written yet, and so I have a chance to make sure that it’s written in from the beginning. I know for one example I want to make sure that I show someone cutting another person off at the table, and someone else intervening to make sure that the first person was heard.
In the rule text, which is the most developed part of the manuscript, a number of these things have been worked into the mechanics. For instance, the main move for doing violence (Throwing Down) is not a great move; even on a 10+ there are consequences. Also, Sneak Around (stealth) is a basic move available to everyone, to encourage stealth over force. There are strong social mechanics in the game, to be able to talk your way around things. There is also a group action move that fosters collaboration.
In the artwork, our initial illustrations of the sample characters are very diverse, and that is something we will continue going forward. John Arcadian is a brilliant art director, and I have complete faith that we will continue that as we start the art orders for the game.
The Rulebook Will Only Go So Far
The cultural messages that are seeded in the book will only go so far. They need players to read and put them into practice. This is where the designers do not have direct influence. We cannot make people play our game the way we intended. We can only convey our wishes. Just as a group may house-rule your game to cut away some of the mechanics, a group of players can ignore the cultural tone you have set in your rules.
But designers are not without influence outside of just the rulebook. There are two places where designers can exert their influence: Actual Plays and Online Communities.
Designers need to take an active hand in creating the early Actual Plays for their games. These Actual Plays will be listened to by the early adopter players, who will be the first members of your community. The way you play the game in your Actual Play will demonstrate your game culture to them, and they will adopt those practices because we as humans are hardwired to do just that.
You can also take an active part in the culture of your game by creating and tending to its social media. Take the initiative to create the G+ group for your game and engage in active discussions with those people playing the game. The rulebook may have initialized the culture, but by being an active member of the social group, you can steer it, clarify things, and give further examples.
The culture of a game can work for or against the game. There are people who won’t play certain games that they would likely enjoy because they don’t feel comfortable with the culture that surrounds the game. Game designers have a responsibility to shape that culture in the rulebook, and can greatly help to foster the culture through Actual Play and being active in the community that surrounds the game.
For Hydro Hacker Operatives, there will be an explicit expectation for the culture of the game, and then it will be reflected throughout the book. I already have my initial Actual Play planned, and when the time is right a Hydro Hackers G+ community will appear.
For those who made it through the article, the Elevator Pitch for Hydro Hacker Operatives is: You are hydro-punk Robin Hoods stealing water from corporations to keep your neighborhood alive.