Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 3-8

There are are a lot of novel ideas, both big and small, being thrown at you in these six chapters and it can often feel just a little bit dizzying. The system has a lot of moving parts, and I, personally, didn't see how it all hung together until I read some examples of play and other extra-textual online sources.

The big mystery of CMWGE is "how did this happen?" Jenna Moran's prose is both engaging and articulate, and most of those extra-textual sources that cleared up my confusion - they came from the woman herself. So why is the book itself so hard to understand?

I think it boils down to something they talk about in rpg theory (yes, it exists, but no, I am not an expert) - narrative stance. At the risk of oversimplifying, narrative stance is the rubric by which a player decides how to roleplay their character. Many different stances have been proposed over the years, but for our purposes here, only two are relevant - actor stance and author stance.

In actor stance, you try to be your character, as much as possible. You make your decisions based on what the character knows. You choose your actions based on the character's motivations and traits. Your goals as a player are basically the same as your character's goals in the fiction of the game.

In author stance, you try to make your character entertaining. You can base your decisions not just on your in-character knowledge, but also on out-of-character and metagame knowledge, like the trajectory of the plot. You probably want your character to act consistently with their traits, but you also want to steer them into interesting situations. Your goals as a player can be at odds with what your character wants, because ultimately you and your friends are an audience for your character's story.

Most games are written around the assumption of a universal actor stance, but even in the most traditional of rpgs, there is some room for nuance here. Players have been making odd decisions in order to stir the pot since practically the very beginning, and even though actor stance encourages you to "do what your character would do" players have gotten around that by choosing characters who would do entertainingly self-destructive things due to their own well-established flaws.

This porous boundary between stances is important because I think it points to CMWGE's greatest weakness. I've mentioned before about how the game does remarkable things to allow players to engage with the author stance on a more complex, satisfying level and all that is still true, but only after my most recent read-through, where I had that specific idea in mind, did I notice that the bulk of the book is written as if it were assuming an actor stance.

Take, for example, the skills section. Skills in CMWGE are player-defined, and since the system is diceless, success and failure on actions are a bit more nebulous. It seems like it would work just fine, but there's an interesting wrinkle - a relatively large portion of the word count is devoted to explaining why you shouldn't use the skill system to break the game. There is, in fact, a half a page (a full column) that tells you what happens if you try to use your Cooking skill to blow up the earth.

In a sense, this is necessary because this is something you can do with an overly literal reading of the rules, but there's a part of me that feels this wouldn't be necessary if the introduction to the skill section had made it clear that CMWGE isn't the sort of game where you need to be overly solicitous of your character points. To put it in perspective: one of the preconstructs from the campaign has a skill of "Good Smile 2" and at one point in the skill section "Superior God King 4" is tossed out as a possibility.

When you look at the skill section as a whole, you can see what it's trying to do - the chart that describes the outcomes of your skill usage does so in terms of "effectiveness" and "productivity." A level 4 result will move you closer to your goals and a level 5 result will make your life better, regardless of whether you are using your good smile or god king magic. And these questions are separate almost entirely from whether the particular action "succeeds" (there's a hierarchy - all productive actions are successful, but not all successful actions are productive.)

There's definitely an underlying tension here. Making your character more powerful from an actor-stance perspective is trivial. The skills Ordinary Kid 2 and Unstoppable Ninja Assassin 2 cost the exact same amount of points. So the reward for spending more points on a skill is really an author-stance reward. The Ordinary Kid 5 is going to be consistently more effective than the Unstoppable Ninja Assassin 1. And yet the whole act of spending points, of having limited numbers of them, of needing to choose between specialist and generalist builds - it's such an actor-stance way of looking at things. The book never quite reaches the point where it openly tells you "don't sweat too hard about making a strong character, your skills actually represent your character's strategy for solving problems and the skills you choose are basically just tags for what you, the player, want your character to be doing when they're looking cool."

A lot of the book's more innovative mechanics are like that. The wounds chapter does come right out and say that the system exists because you have the final say over the ultimate fate of your character, and that your wounds basically act as a limited reserve of vetoes over changes you don't approve of. But then, they're called wounds and they look a lot like a series of health boxes.

While this ambiguity is definitely the major contributing factor for why CMWGE can be so hard to understand, I'm not sure that it isn't a bit of subtle design brilliance at the same time. It offers a bridge between the stances and sort of molds you into an author-stance player through its fundamental gameplay loop. On the other hand, I've got to be wary of slipping too deep into fanboyism here. It's just as likely that the ambiguity is due to the author being out on a limb and having an originally more traditional game morph into an author-stance workshop halfway through development.

Either way, the book up to this point has been a rollercoaster of inviting prose, frustrating lapses in reading comprehension, and breathtakingly bold ideas. The balance is more good than bad, but I am looking forward to Chapter 9, which is pure good all the way through.

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