Monday, June 5, 2017

Lacking Subtlety

Games, generally speaking, are not subtle. 

What do I mean?

Well, I had a conversation with my pal Dave about this a few days ago and I came to the conclusion that most games lack subtlety. Their settings, premises, and how the various elements of those things are introduced to the players/PCs is often over-the-top, blatant, and even crude.

Everything is Extreme!, like the music videos of the eighties. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, RIFTS, and Shadowrun are perhaps the most obvious examples of this idea. The art contributes to this to a large degree but also the commonality of the elements within:. Spells and Magic are everywhere, monsters are species that appear in large groups, there are towering, skyscraper-like castles, and fantastically fashionably dressed characters abound.

I've noted in the past that this is one of the key reasons D&D and the likes of it don't appeal to me. It isn't really very medieval. The bizarre, and glowingly arcane is so common place as to feel mundane. Every evil wizard, and dreadful monster is so much bigger, and more eccentric than the last that none of it seems special. There is no grounding in reality to judge the fabulous against.

I prefer subtlety. I like worlds that seem essentially real, basically normal, until you realize they are not, but at first can't put your finger squarely on why. As the wonder, and weirdness is revealed over time, you begin to have a new appreciation for not only that which is strange, but also for the comfort of the world you thought you knew. 

This works better in some genres than others, though many games with similar genres, or even the same genres, can be approached subtly as easily as they can be flagrant, and unabashed.

To illustrate what I mean, let's look at the World of Darkness.

Traditionally, Vampire: The Masquerade is subtle. The world of the Vampires remains in the shadows. The people of the world are not aware a secret war of blood-drinkers in being waged just outside the edge of their vision. Battles between members of The Kindred are stealthy, secretive affairs.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse however often seems over-the-top and obvious. No, the world is no more aware of the Werewolves then they are of the Vampires but the powers in the game, the way battles are fought, and such makes the supernatural parts of the setting seem very apparent. Werewolf campaigns commonly end up feeling like Superhero games more often than not.

Vampires are quiet, hidden, and stealthy. Werewolves are loud, brutal, and right in your face. That's the point right? I suppose...

Marvel and DC aren't subtle. HEROES is. Often Superhero games aren't subtle, like ICONS, Champions, and of course Marvel and DC related ones. Aberrant isn't really subtle either. GODLIKE? Hmmm. Perhaps.

How about in Science Fiction? Star Wars, Star Trek, and even Traveller are not generally subtle. Cyberpunk could be, but often isn't. Hmmm. SF is tough. One might consider the film Interstellar subtle, maybe Blade Runner (at least partially) or perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a subtle SF RPG?...hard pressed to think of one. 

Now I don't want to give the impressive I don't like the flashy imposing set pieces or crazy action of a mainstream blockbuster every once in a while. I absolutely do! I just wish we saw a bit more of the other approach in table top games. Right now Tales from the Loop is the best example of what I am thinking of, though even its default setting is a bit more transparent and less subtle than I'd like (as I posted last month, I would run it a bit differently than the book implies).

What about you? Do you think there is a place for subtle gaming? What settings do you feel come off as subtle? Is there a subtle Fantasy game?*

Barking Alien

*I think maybe Ars Magica could be considered subtle, depending on how you look at it. Any others?


  1. So when you say "subtle" you mean that the actions of the PC's and the plot of the campaign isn't particularly noticed by the world around them? Because you also conflate that with genre-issues like science fiction, which you rightly point out can't be hidden because it's the future, rather than the present.

    There are plenty of games that encourage low-key behavior, but my favorite is Primeval, the RPG based on the British television show revolving around scientists and adventurers trying to contain and control time portals erupting in our world without anyone knowing about it. In the game there's actually a mechanic, a number, that indicates how much of a public disturbance is taking place. The PC's need to keep that number low because if it were to get too high, basically the world knows, descends into an utter panic, and the game is basically over.

    1. 'Subtle' the way I am using it here is more than just hidden. It's an approach, a tone.

      Just looking at the art of Pathfinder and D&D products shows me they have a very high FX budget, in-your-face, over-the-top approach to Fantasy. Everything is a huge, dripping, spikey mess two or three times the size of any Human being.

      Ars Magica and Pendragon art depicts Knights on horses (who look like real, medieval knights on real horses), a fisherman rowing a boat, a strange shape, or shadow in the distance.

      In the majority of Pathfinder/D&D encounters I expect to hear a snarl, a roar that shakes the trees, a ka-boom!

      In Ars Magica I expect a distant, soft sound like a heavy foot on dry leaves. A sound difficult to make out, and even harder to identify. Then a twig 'SNAPS' not a few steps away...

      It's really about how a setting is portrayed and conveyed to the players. Does it have a sense of finesse, or does it come barreling on in like the table top equivalent of a Michael Bay movie?

  2. I also prefer subtlety in games and settings. I'd recommend Dragon Warriors for a subtle fantasy game. Early medieval setting with tons of myth and superstition. The bestiary is less of a list of monsters to slay and more a collection of beasties to build a scenario around.

  3. A Song of Ice and Fire is a subtle Fantasy game. There are dragons, zombies, giants, wights, druids that control animals and clerics that resurrect people, yet it comes across as a fairly realistic setting. Also, people in it are often wrong when telling myth from reality.

    1. I would argue that it starts out that way, but it becomes less, and less subtle as it goes on.

      Of course I could be wrong. I've only read the first book, and never seen the show. It didn't grab me.

      I do like what you're saying though. It's absolutely in line with what I'm talking about.