Tuesday, January 21, 2020

New Toy

My darling bride of 20 years got me a new toy for Christmas -- my first digital art slate!
Here's a quick experiment with it ... the head of a froghemoth of course.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Rambling Conversation with a Chum

JB: Is there a perfect gaming system? A pinnacle beyond which everything else is needless obfuscation & busy "refinement?" 

I mean, probably not, because of individual preference & otherwise, but still. What's the most versatile, streamlined, essential system?
JP: Game system informs game play, so it depends on what you are trying to emulate. We are playing lightly house ruled B/X D&D right now via text (happens to be my favorite version). Observe how it impacts your play: you are very cautious because you understand that the mechanics make you much more like Hudson in Aliens then Hawkeye in Avengers. 

A fair fight is folly ... rather, this is a system that rewards cagey, meticulous, yet decisive play and the application of every dirty trick in the book (asymmetrical thinking--a player skill rather than a character skill). Knowing when to run is critical too. The system discourages heroism but invites ethical debate. It neither offers incentive nor discourages character development, leaving the choice to explore the psychology of the character or not firmly in the hands of the individual player. The role of the DM is paramount and his power unchecked. It is, therefore, an exercise in trust -- the DM will give you enough rope to hang yourself, but won't go easy or smash you without hope of escape... 

Other systems impact play and stake out their themes in other terrain: more exploration of internal conflict, greater focus on tactical detail, optimizing character builds, management of the action economy, improvisation, etc.

The question is, "How well do the systems selected by the designer inform play in a way that is consistent with the genre or action that the game is meant to evoke?" 

Does the modern horror game create a focus on growing desperation and impotence, or is it an exercise in build optimization so that the player gets to roll the biggest handful of dice possible? (I'm looking at you, White Wolf).

King Arthur Pendragon is probably one of the best genre emulation systems I've met in nearly 40 years at this.  Marvel Superheroes Advanced (the TSR era game by Jeff Grubb) is another. Paranoia by West End Games is a solid entry, as is Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu. 

D&D is an odd duck. With it, Gary and Dave set out to emulate swords and sorcery, missed the mark, and in doing so created an entirely new subgenre!
The other big consideration is the players ... more on them later 😁
As you suggested earlier, the quest for the holy grail of games systems is somewhat quixotic, because of the incredible diversity of experience, expectation, interpretation, and temperament found among role playing nerds. 

Add varying levels of personal development and emotional growth (especially intrapersonal intelligence -- an  area where, along with interpersonal intelligence, gamers show disproportionate deficits) and you've got quite a daunting task.
Player A may *think* he wants to explore a new sexual identity through the safe forum of the game, but instead his first concern is actually rules mastery in such a way that minimizes the unpredictable. 

Player B, meanwhile, hates his job, hates his commute and just wants to kick ass and feel potent for a couple hours.
Robin Laws (who would go on to consult for 5e) wrote a little book called "Robin's Laws for Good Game Mastering". It's quite good. Print copies are north of $50 but it's available in pdf. 

In it he outlines several types of player: method actor, casual gamer, power gamer, etc. It's a handy schema for thinking about how players intersect with genre, and thus system.
Oh, the Ghost Busters RPG, also from West End Games, was something pretty special, though really (and oddly) it sought to emulate the IP as received in pop culture rather than the movie itself.
Risus is also pretty damn amazing -- written by a local boy (S. John Ross) who went on to consult for Wizards of the Coast and 5e. Pdf is free and rules are about 6 pages at most. 
So, coming back to your original question: What's the perfect game system in terms of being versatile, streamlined, and essential?
I'd avow that the qualities of genre emulation and creating the play experience actually sought by individual players (as discrete from the play experience they may think they desire or articulate as preferred) exist in tension with the qualities of versatility and efficiency. They aren't mutually exclusive, but neither are they synonymous.
Steve Jackson's GURPS is built with versatility as its primary aim, and while its core mechanics *can* begin to step back off center stage with familiarity and repetition, there are still genres which aren't best supported by that system. At its heart, it is "crunchy" (though GURPS Lite makes an effort to dial this back a bit). 

The largely forgotten Amazing Engine by TSR likewise reaches for versatility (though with considerably less crunch), but again, it is outclassed in genre emulation by various front-runners.


JB: What is your preferred style as a player?

JP: As a *player* I am, according to Mr Laws, primarily a "tactician," though I can swing "method actor" if I don't find myself among like minds.

The genres which best compliment that include high risk, gritty settings with fragile characters (vs heroic) such as 1920s gangsters, hard sci-fi, old school dungeon crawling, low-tech or survival stories (e.g. Elfquest, stone age, zombie survival, low fantasy post apocalyptic, Bunnies and Burrows, etc.). Even though it fits thematically, I don't actually like hard sci-fi (I don't know enough about physics).

The game systems that hit those notes optimally include GURPS, pre 3rd ed D&D (any of the five versions that came before 2000), and Chaosium's Basic role playing engine.

As a GM, I strongly prefer rules - lite systems that encourage bricolage and heavily emphasize cooperation among the players. 

The system emphasis must match what the game is about thematically ... if the game is about wild west gun slinging, there had better be mechanics for the stare down and fast draw! 

I prefer systems that emphasize player skill over character skill, which don't seek to buffer players from GM choices, in which system mastery isn't critical to success, and which maximize GM flexibility and improvisation. 

I want to be able to respond fluidly to unpredictable choices made by players, and I want the freedom to launch new encounters rapidly without working through sophisticated mechanics or being worried about encounter balance. 

Pre-3rd edition D&D, Chaosium's Basic system (Elric, Elfquest, Call of Cthulhu, etc), Risus, and ... unsurprisingly Olde School Wizardry fit that bill. ]

JB: What's your least favorite system? Pathfinder? The Hero System?
JP: Least favorite would be the worst match of genre to system, right? 

So yes, both Champions and the Hero System are very crunchy with a big focus on fiddly modifiers -- that's the antithesis of four color comic book heroics.

D&D 4th ed is terrible at emulating the gritty dungeon crawl survival genre that D&D created ... 5th *can* do it, but requires modification (keeping it off the bottom of the heap). 

GURPS, rules as written, is painfully fiddly as is Pathfinder. It doesn't do much for me as a player, and I loathe it as a GM. 

Burning Wheel leaves me cold. Um... Mouseguard lic. published with it ... and Torchbearer. It's interesting and does what it does well, but not the kind of circus I'd care to GM.

Warhammer RPG hits its grim dark fantasy tone well (but like Astonishing Swordsmen of Hyperborea, you could cover the same ground with a lightly house ruled AD&D. 

Dungeon Crawl Classics does what it sets out to do very well and in some ways is more of a spiritual successor to AD&D than 3e was.

MERP/Role Master is gawdawful ... a fiddly, Champions - like effort to evoke Middle Earth via what feels rather like doing one's taxes. Somehow they couldn't get out from under the long shadow of D&D, and thought,  "You know what would help? More charts!"

DCC loves charts too--to an almost comical extreme, but that at least is for a specific purpose: to elicit what was most idiosyncratic about D&D when we first learned it as kids, down to our fumbling unfamiliarity with the strange dice, and turn it up to 11.
JB: [regarding Astonish Swordsmen of Hyperborea] I didn't really understand mechanics. I read the world-building & etc. & left the rules largely unconsidered. Now that I have a bit more insight, I should revisit it.

JP: Well that's an interesting point, and a whole other topic (for another time): role-playing games not as games, but in fact as a form of literature masquerading as games.