Why are some games so hard to understand?

Over the years I’ve encountered dozens of games which are highly popular, are supposedly easy to learn, but I just can’t wrap my head around them.

One reason was probably that I grew up with pretty traditional roleplaying games, while most of the games I had trouble with were definitely more “indie”. But this couldn’t have been the only reason. But for quite a while I never realized why I had a hard time getting into games like Fate or Apocalypse world.

While I am still having trouble, I at least think I’ve found out what my main problem is. I overanalyze and overthink everything. Especially with Fate this still kicks me in the nuts when I try to run it. Skills are fine, Approaches (like in FAE) are mostly so, but Aspects always make my head spin, especially when it comes to situational Aspects.

In fact Aspects are pretty easy. If a room has the aspect “Pitch Black” it just establishes a fact. In traditional games, we actually establish facts as well, we just don’t write that down on an index card (which you can do in Fate to remind you of said fact) or give those facts special names. Invoking an aspect for example is just making use of the fact. For example you get a +2 bonus to hide in the room. That’s not much different how you do things in other games. But instead of having a rule for every possible circumstance, Fate uses a slightly more abstract approach. Which is actually not that hard to get…

… BUT for some reason my brain wants to make things more complicated. It’s actually pretty hard to put into words, because it’s all a bit fuzzy, but I tend to look for a deeper meaning or something more complex which just can’t be found, because it isn’t there.

I don’t know if it’s just me or if this happens to other gamers as well. So please share your thoughts below. And if you have good tips on how to avoid overthinking everything, please share those with us!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “Why are some games so hard to understand?”

  1. I think each of us has a preference, based on past experience and personal style. I’ve played lots of D&D, GURPS, Storyteller, and Savage Worlds.

    In my case, I like generic systems for their flexibility, with just a little crunch for setting-specific flavor and task/combat resolution.

    My current groups tend to be split between fans of D20/Pathfinder’s specific rules and those who like the more narrative style of FATE and similar indie systems.

    As a player, I understand the desire for lots of options for character building, but as a Game Master, I prefer simplicity for ease of preparation and focusing on storytelling.

    Since I’ve run FATE 3e games (using Starblazer Adventures), I’m sometimes thrown by the simplicity of FAE, but I’m also not a fan of the dice pools, varied non-D&D dice, or card-based resolution systems of other RPGs. As always, YMMV….

  2. If I am not totally mistaken my biggest issue with FATE is that I need to invest an ingame currency to actually get “a +2 bonus to hide in the room because it is pitch black” no?

    More on topic: I totally have a similar understanding issue with games like Fate / PbtA. I believe it is because they abstract things that I take as “granted and naturally occurring” and puts them in specific mechanics. And that totally alienates me.

  3. FATE & AW remind me of Calculus. I read the explanation and examples and everything makes sense. But then it comes to apply them to real game situations and I’m like “how do we loosen the rusty bolt with the banana bread again?”

    FATE in particular has some amazing mechanics. I love how FATE restricts the utility of a disadvantage by how often it becomes relevant. In most other games a disadvantage like alcoholism is a flat point boost regardless if the PC drinks every session or all during the session. But with FATE the mechanical reward for taking alcoholism is directly proportional to how often alcoholism actually comes into play.

    Which is cool. But once you get past the aspects things go off the deep end for me. Why do I need to spend one of only three tokens to get a small bonus to hide in a dark room. Shouldn’t there be an inherent advantage to hiding in a dark room? Shouldn’t spending from a very small pool of plot points buy me a more substantial impact in the game? Like an absolute declaration of ‘you are hidden in the pitch black room’?

    Then there is stuff like “Create an Advantage”. What exactly does that mean? Isn’t a room that is “Pitch Black” either an advantage or disadvantage depending on the circumstances? The same as any character’s aspects? I mean, the aspects “Elvish” or “Former Navy SEAL” are conditional too, aren’t they? I mean if a PC was trying to convince an NPC to help the party but the NPC hates and mistrusts Elves, being Elvish is a disadvantage isn’t it? And a Former Navy SEAL would have trouble infiltrating the ECO terrorist group when their contacts in the government revealed he holds a security clearance with the Federal Government.

    It’s just too abstract, Like mechanics have been forced onto something that didn’t need mechanics.

  4. When it comes to explaining Aspects to my players, I like to bring to their attention that any given aspect has two types of effects: a “passive” effect and an “active” effect.

    The “passive” effect is about informing the fiction of the game and giving narrative justification for things happening in the scene. Say you have the “room full of water” as a situation aspect. This aspect tells you what is important for the fiction, and a character cannot ignore the water flooding the room, no matter if someone invoked/compelled the aspect or not; it is still “true”. That also means aspects can suggest difficulty ratings for tasks associated with said aspects, providing with passive or active opposition for tasks the characters may try that involve the aspect. Now, all of these effects don’t need a Fate point to be activated, they just come out organically from play, exactly the same way that would happen with a more traditional roleplaying game. Fiction, then, informs play, as it always had.

    The other side of aspects is its “active” effect: the way an aspect can help or hinder a task, mechanically providing a bonus or a re-roll for it. That’s its “authorial” power, the fact that a player can spend a Fate point and provide a minimum of justification in order to gain an advantage to a roll because the aspect somehow helps his character. A player can either spend a Fate point to invoke an aspect, or risk a roll to invoke it free of charge (the second option is the “Create an Advantage” action). With the “room full of water” aspect, a player can bring this scene detail front and center, and use it to spin the narration of his character’s actions by spending a Fate point and describing how the flooded room have corralled his enemies, making it more difficult for them to retaliate against his character. Or risk a Create an Advantage action (and spend a valuable turn) to invoke it for free the next turn, while it’s characters position himself in the higher ground. This active effect is all about the characters’ protagonism in the story; they are the heroes and villains of the drama, therefore the fiction reacts more strongly around them when they make a real effort and push their luck.

    A second “active” effect is Compelling an Aspect, which is like Authorial power in reverse, punishing the character through fiction only, in order to earn a Fate point for the character troubles. There are no mechanics involved here, yet a certain amount of table negotiation is ought to happen between the GM and the player involved. The same thing about protagonim can be said here, for in order to shine a brighter light on the heroes, the shadow must become deeper.

    Well, I hope my explanation can help you understand a little more about aspects in play.


  5. I’m an old school player, since I began in 1983 with the Red Box. But I discovered Gurps, wich lead me too Fudge, wich led me to Fate. At first I did not connect with the aspect loaded logic, (wich derivate from Fudge) but il came to me with Fate second edition for me, and now Fate is my to go game. The point is to think in term of dramatic value of the action in the style of play, not in terms of simulation, like we did before. So if a player want to use an aspect, he pays for it (ot does a maneuvre to try to gain free invocation of it) because Fate points are the currency of drama : to have good things come to you, you have to take some bad too, as it is in a good story, may it be a novel or TV serie.

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