Friday, 28 June 2013

Zeitgeist

Today, I want to talk about zeitgeist. This is a fancy German term for "spirit of the time" or "spirit of the age." Here at the SoulJar offices (the desk in the corner of my bedroom) we use it to mean the spirit of the setting or game.

I think every game should have it's own spirit. It's own feel. Not to sound too preachy, but games have meaning. I think they have something to say, or at least a point of view under which it operates. Call of Cthulhu is a perfect example. That game tries to embrace the nihilism of Lovecraft's work, and the Sanity mechanic provides that zeitgeist. Zeitgeist is the lens through with the game sees itself, and provides the meta-conditions that inform the rules.

Wow, that's pretty heavy for a game about squirrels.

I'll use an apophatic example ("apophatic" is a fancy word for knowing God negatively, through what he is not); a game that establishes a zeitgeist and doesn't stick to it. Dark Sun. In Dark Sun, magic is bad. Magic causes ecological devastation. The antagonists in Athas are magic users. If you want to do magical-type stuff, you've got to be a psionicist (which sells The Big Book of Psionics, but ok). So the world sets up its conditions, the lens through which it views itself, and then completely backs off it. Oh wait, there are also "good" magic users who don't cause ecological devastation. When I got to that part, I put the game down.

Now, you can make the case that the bad magic users wanted the quick and powerful way to use magic and made a moral choice, while the good magic users chose the slower, safer way. Ok. I don't agree. I think TSR realized that the guys who liked playing magic users wouldn't play their game, and so they got shoehorned back into the setting. In other words, TSR punted. They watered down a great setting for corporate/sales reasons.

I think a game should stick to its guns.

One of the things I didn't like about the Open Gaming License was that it bled out whatever zeitgeist already existed in a game. Fading Suns worked the way it did for a reason. Call of Cthulhu plays the way it does for a reason. Vampire is Vampire for a reason. The rules are there to tell you how to portray this kind of character or thus-and-such setting. Once every game tried to shoehorn itself into the d20 system, it lost something. Every character you played had feats, saving throws, class abilities.... No matter what game I played, no matter the setting, it felt like I was playing the same damned game. There was no zeitgeist.

Cairn has a zeitgeist. Today, I'm going to try to make that a bit stronger. Or at least, articulate it better. Now some of you might say "just write the last two freaking chapters and be done with it!" However, there are things in the game that don't match the zeitgeist of the game. This is all just a fancy, coffee-house way of saying I'm going to attempt to fix how Drives work in this game.

Drives are pretty important. They're something you pick for your PC that tells you why you go on adventures. While the other hedgehogs sit around harrumphing that someone should do something about the Dire Rats raiding the town, you grab your cudgel and pack. Why? Maybe you want to build something lasting. Maybe you're just curious. However, I think there should be a way to reinforce that; some reward for actually acting according to your Drive. So that Drive isn't just something on your character sheet, but something you actually roleplay.

This is the kind of thing I mean when I say I'm trying to strengthen the zeitgeist.

Does any of this make sense? I feel I'm not making sense.

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