Negotiated Strictness For Fun & Profit

I ran a sort of half-session of Edge of the Empire last night. Just a little warm up to get us all back into it and to introduce a new Scout/Force Sensitive PC into the mix.

I do love the mechanics of The FFG Star Wars games, particularly their dice. It’s funny because coming from a Whitehack campaign, the two have very little in common in the details, but both systems are fairly strict with how the various mechanics interact (Does your character succeed? Is that person dead now?) and yet both systems are pretty flexible when it comes to deciding what those results actually mean in the fiction.

More than that, both games place an emphasis on having a continuing negotiation between the players and the GM, more so than any other game i can think of off the top of my head. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that two of my favourite recent systems have something so fundamental in common, but it wasn’t obvious that this was the case at first.

Fate games have a similar everything-is-a-negotiation dynamic, although I’m not sure it’s as explicit in the rulebook, or if it’s just a general attitude for the game. The actual mechanics of the games are far from strict though, characters, tools, places, organisations and even situations are all, primarily, defined by Aspects and these can all be interpreted and mixed and opposed in any way which feels right at the time.

Looking at Fate in these terms, I can see that what I always liked about the system is the way that all the features of the game can be applied as required with no real restrictions as agreed in the ongoing negotiation between players and GM. The mechanics though leave the game borderline unplayable for me, as they lack the detail and the structure needed to apply either weight or consistency to events in game.

Apocalypse Engine games seem to be the opposite mix, with tightly structured Moves controlling the results of any significant action in the game but it being explicitly the GM’s job to determine when and how these rules are applied. I haven’t had a chance to play any Apocalypse Powered games yet but I am now doubly interested in doing so, if only to see if I enjoy it’s strict rules but dislike it’s reliance on GM authority.

Even looking back to some of my old favourites I can see this pattern maintained. Over The Edge was pretty revolutionary when it was released in the early nineties, characters are only defined by a handful of traits which detail what that character is particularly good or bad at. Importantly, the players are free to choose whatever they like for what these traits cover, as long as the GM agrees. Then, whenever a player wants to use a trait, they need to convince the GM that it is relevant to the situation at hand. So there is that negotiation again. After that, the mechanics are all pretty structured. High roll wins, Hit Points for damage, turn order, all pretty strict, like I seem to like. You could argue that it doesn’t really feature mechanics for social interactions but this was 1993, they hadn’t been invented yet!

Please note, I’m not saying that strict systems and shared, negotiated, player/GM authority is the best way to write an RPG, but it does seem to be my favourite and there is no doubting that it does work. The negotiation aspects help build player agency while also keeping the GMs on their toes and the structure of the systems keep events consistent and enable tactical play.

So can you think of any other games which fit these two criteria? Honestly, I’d be interested in reading any other games which put their focus on this negotiation between players and their GMs. Any thoughts?

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