Thanks to Google, I learned this morning that today is the 119th anniversary of the sundae. Wow? Who would’ve thought something so delicious hasn’t always existed? It’s intriguing to consider the RPG in terms of the sundae. They have simple enough formulas when you break them down to their bare essence, so let’s take the post-modern deconstructionist view and explore this metaphor a bit more fully.
A classic sundae is constructed in the following manner (from bottom to top):
While this is how the designer makes it, when you sit down to eat it, you’re approaching it in the reverse order. This also works well. While you may have an intriguing theme, it’s the cherry which gets your attention first. Now approaching your game from the end user (consumer’s) perspective, this is how your game comes across.
1. The cherry is your hook. It’s the expected little embellishment. It’s the intriguing thing, familiar yet alluring, which catches the eye. It could be anything from the graphics of the game box to the intriguing spin you give your setting. In games without a setting, such as GURPS or Savage Worlds, it could be the simple promise of “learn one system, play anything” or for a specific setting it could be something as “What happens after the world goes to hell in a hand basket (from a giant serpent dropping on the world from Nazi sorcerers)? As exemplified in The Day After Ragnarok?”
2. Whipped cream is the little flourishes given to you, and I tend to think of it as the writer’s style. The style adds flavor to the entire mixture, but well executed and out of the way. Certainly, you know it’s there, by virtue of the writer’s name, and you’d miss it if it was gone, but it only calls attention to itself for a moment before mixing itself up in the creamy goodness of the work. You’d miss it if it was gone, and whipped creams can vary from very fresh to store bought. ;)
3. Nuts are the crunch in your game and indicate how heavy the rules are in play or how the base rules (the ice cream) are modified in play. Think of Realms of Cthulhu without the sanity system. It would still be a serviceable sundae, but it’d be missing some essential to its flavor, and you’d know it was fundamentally wrong. The right nuts can elevate a sundae (think of pecans versus peanuts, for example) and you have to be careful how you sprinkle them on. They should accentuate the creation, not take over.
4. The topping is the setting overlay. This is your world. This is where you deliver on the promise put in place by the cherry (your hook). This is what is going to dominate your work. It should play well with all the other essential elements, but also most notably marks its territory. Most sundaes are labeled by their toppings, be they a butterscotch sundae or a chocolate sundae. Is it post-apocalyptic dark fantasy (RunePunk) or is oriental steampunk (Iron Dynasty)?
5. Ice cream is your mechanical base. It’s the core around which the entire sundae is built and it’s flavor can range from the crunchiness of butter pecan to the sublime wonder of an excellent vanilla. The rules can fundamentally change the flavor of your sundae. Imagine your favorite sundae with pistachio as opposed to chocolate. Changing this one simple thing can impact everything. It’s important you pick the right ice cream and you’re familiar with its taste. Iron Dynasty plays very differently in Savage Worlds than it does in Fantasy Craft, but they are both similar enough to one another, there’s just flavor shifts by doing so. Or, for an example you may well have played, Realms of Cthulhu differs from Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, yet they all use the same Mythos toppings…
6. Toppings aren’t just at the top, but they are at the bottom of a sundae. Most folks forget it when thinking about a sundae, but when you dig into one, you have to appreciate the caramel, chocolaty syrupy gobs of goo awaiting you at the bottom. This is a continuation of the setting you’ve placed on top of the mechanics, it’s the underlying resonance which has changed from virtue of the pressures applied by the ice cream (the mechanics). They are the culmination of the work and time invested, they are the foundational basis, the blending of the added rules and are a soup of all the other elements when they are combined into one of the spoonfuls. They are the experience the user takes away after a session. The sense of longing for another bite after the final spoonful is devoured if done properly. Or the miasma of false, sugary promises and regret left at the bottom of the glass.
Think about these things the next time you play or design an RPG and see if there aren’t some elements of truth to be found in the purity of a simple sundae.
Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!