Friday, February 12, 2010

I Never Met A System I Didn't Like

Earlier today, I was trying to make a point about games. I was trying to construct a sentence along the lines of "Hell, if the DM and players trust each other and are all there to have fun, you could play (name of pathetically bad RPG system here) and still have the time of your life."

And I couldn't think of a system to go in the parenthesis.

I mean, there are legendarily bad games--Synnibar, Blue Rose--but I've never played them. (Edit--I re-iterate, I've never played them or even read them, so I have no idea whether their reputations are deserved, that's my point. Feel free to comment on how you love either of those systems in the comments but realize your comments are totally irrelevant to the subject of this post since I have no basis to argue with you. All I 'm saying is I've heard bad things, early and often but have never had reason to investigate. My hobby is playing games, not testing them.) There were a few games I played as a kid that I didn't play again--Ghostbusters, Tales of the Floating Vagabond--but in both cases it was more because of the setting and tone than the system.

When I was a kid I had a sort of blissful trust about system: when you were playing DC Heroes you used the Mayfair DC Heroes system, when you were playing Marvel Super Heroes you used the TSR FASERIP system. Those were the games and they were fun. Playing them felt different in some obscure way, but it never occurred to us why that might be. Plus it was never that different, because we were still us and we ran things like the glue-sniffing metalheads we were no matter what game we were playing.

It no more would have occurred to me to question the system than it would occur to me to try to improve on the rules of soccer or tic tac toe. We tweaked stuff, for sure--I remember figuring that, since Jetfire the Transformer was basically a Macross VAF-6J, you could use Jetfire's stat graph from the back of the Transformers toy package to figure out Palladium stats for any Transformer you liked, I padded out the Marvel system with tons of new powers, and, like everybody else, we ignored encumbrance. But, in general, we saw the system and setting as inextricably linked. In fact, it occurred to me and my friends to make our own games long before it ever occurred to us that any system we used might be "fundamentally flawed".

I think the fact that we were in school helped--yeah, the Shadowrun damage system was involved, but we all did way harder math way faster five days a week. Now I look back and can see ways to simplify it, but at the time not only would I have not seen the point, I had a superstitious fear about leaving out rules. Wasn't it possible that some vital hole would be torn in the space-game-balance-continuum if your cyberpunk damage wasn't rendered as 6L4 and your dungeoncrawl damage wasn't expressed as 2d6?

The first time I remember not liking rules was when I read the first revision of Warhammer 40k--not because I didn't like playing with them ( I never tried) but mainly because, if I remember correctly, the web guns and vortex grenades with which my Eldar had, up 'til then, caused untold havoc were way less powerful.

Even today, I still have trouble thinking of a system I've played that I wouldn't play again. You take whatever system, you house-rule the fuck out of it, and that's that. Most of the tweaking I do these days is just to simplify the rules to make them easier for new players--porn star and otherwise--to understand.

Of course, like everybody else on my blog list, I like to sit around and pontificate on whether variable weapon damage is better than standardized weapon damage or whether pure Vancian magic creates a significantly different game atmosphere then semi-Vancian magic, but really, this is like just us swishing the wine around in our mouths and spitting it in the sink. In reality, if it tastes good and gets you drunk, I could give a fuck what vintage it is. As long as we're having fun, we're doing everything right that matters, and the rest is just variety.

If you're a professional game designer, everything matters, because you're trying to sell just a few more units than the next guy and every inch of marginal utility you can get is important, and I respect that. But if you're just playing the game, pretty much whatever seems to work.


  1. Have you checked out the FATE system? I've been digging into Spirit of the Century in preperation for the release of the Dresden Files RPG and I have to say I think you might enjoy it. The point you bring up about trust between player and DM is great because that's what this is all about. You can't enjoy a long term game if both sides of the table can't agree on what's fun and what's not.

  2. Some of us not getting paid to game in front of cameras have a strong desire to wring as much fun from every minute of gaming as possible. While I agree in principle with your attitude, in practice some game systems are just too damned frustrating to put up with. Fighting against a system that doesn't provide results that reinforce what we're about at the table is extra time and effort I don't want to spend. Handwaving those results away puts you on the slippery slope to freeform, and as we all know, that way lies madness. ;)

  3. I agree with your essential premise, & I have friends who would argue that the "purest" expression of the hobby would be perfect dice & rule-less storytelling, I take a different tactic. Call it the Sapir Whorf of games, but I think rules are an important influence on setting & story. If DnD makes your combat geared toward combat...combat is more likely. If you have a short health bar instead of copious hit points, you won't leap into combat. Etc.

    People talk about Shadowrun being complicated; I never thought so! Well...once you ignored riggers & deckers. After that you just picked a target number-- forget adding up every plus or minus, just wing it!

    The same friend mentioned above just started running a Rolemaster campaign. I...that to me sounds crazy. Crazy.

    Also, now that the math on the Old World of Darkness has been revealed as fundamentally flawed, I'd have a hard time going back to that.

  4. A poorly written game forces me to extend more energy, like swimming against the stream. Swimming with the stream, with a game that is backing up our play preferences and helping us have the kind of game experience we are looking for with that particular campaign is swimming with the stream, system helping us have a good time, rather than forcing us to expend energy where it is better spent elsewhere.

  5. something Dave Brockie told me when i was hitching a ride to Hoboken from VA. it made a big impact mainly because his voice is 50 decibels above everything else. "i got the main dnd book tore out a few pages and threw the rest away. you really dont need that much to play with." the guy is pretty quick with improvising everything in his continuum so...sorta an exception to most systems. ya don't need much tho. those early tours were powered by endless imaginative damnation (dead? not a problem),and caverns with impaled Ygs.

  6. I remember, when we were debating the rules through an entire Shadowrun 2nd edition game session, but it was so interesting, that one of my friends commmented, that half the fun of playing Shadowrun is these rules debates... It is like philosophy, kind of like the alignment debates in AD&D... It can be interpreted as waste of game time, but on the other hand, it is quite interesting intellectual debate... :-)

  7. Rules matter in so much as you actually follow them. As DM I really don't. I have game system in my head which is ever changing mish-mash. That's the game I house rule towards, the game I run internally. Sure it gets a little more concrete and specific towards the character creation/interaction end. But most the fiddly bits, bah. d20+modifiers if it's high it worked/was positive, low it sort of didn't. I've never encountered a situation that couldn't handle.

    That's all fine and good until running into the player/DM trust or rather Player's "expectation of play style / rule adhearence" issue. The more complex / fiddly a rules system is the higher the expectation of players that all those rules will be in play, unaltered and available for them to exploit.

    This disconnect nailed my past 3.5 game which I ran by my pants / DM adjudication style and that my players totally hated.

    So rules (can) matter, but only indirectly and only if there exists lack of trust and/or mismatch of expectations.

  8. I don't know, as a system I rather liked Blue Rose. I think it got a bad rep from people that never actually played it.

    I prefer simple mechanics myself because they "get out of the way" of the role-playing.

    As a player I appreciate the effort of the game designers to do that. As a game designer I would consider my job incomplete if I didn't make the system simple and fun.

    Zak, I'll mail you a copy of "Ghosts of Albion" if you and group would like to try it sometime.

  9. Yeah.. I was wondering when Blue Rose became a 'Legendary Bad Game'. They pulled the system out and it became the True20 system which people seem to really like.

    some people got up in a huff because it was 'pushing a liberal agenda' but these were the same people who thought Willow having a lesbian relationship on Buffy was 'pushing a liberal agenda'.

  10. SC78-
    it's a system, therfore I would probably enjoy it. of course i enjoy the one i'm playing now.

    don't be condescending. i want to enjoy the games i'm playing, and most of the time we don;t get paid.

    i didn;t say rules weren;t an important influence on setting and story. i just said that i personally never ran into a ruleset that wasn;t fun.

    see the second sentence in my comment to mordicai. rules are important, i've just been lucky about them.

    tim & metahuman--
    like i said, i never played BR, so I can't comment.

  11. Socially conservative libertarians like to bitch about BR's setting, but the system is just... 3e. With most of the random dndisms filed off.

    The idea of being afraid of leaving rules out kinda spooks me, like it's implying some sort of ur-game essense lurking behind the facade of the specific, individual rules. Maybe we just played a lot of fucked up games when we were kids (in fact, we got more play out of board games we made ourselves, and I made my own CCG) but it seemed pretty... obvious? unquestionable? that the rules were quasi-placeholders or fuzzily-drawn frames of imposition on a fundamentally calvinballian space of play.

  12. I'm going to have to be a finicky jerk here... The Jetfire toy was a VF-1 with the battle armor, not a VAF-6J. I confirmed with Google images and Wikipedia (yes, I know, but they're the most reliable sources I have on this matter). The VAF-6J looks nothing like the Jetfire toy whereas the VF-1 with battle armor is a perfect match.

  13. And because I can't edit posts, that's still an awesome trick, BTW, using the stats on the back of the package to infer the stats of other transformers.

  14. Wow. The post had probably the best comment I've seen so far ("Hell, if the DM and players trust each other and are all there to have fun, you could play (name of pathetically bad RPG system here) and still have the time of your life.") and then pull a 180 in the insight department by claiming that Blue Rose (a game you admit you've never played) is a "legendarily bad game" ? To say that I disagree with that last statement is an understatement of biblical proportions.

  15. Brandon-
    Tales of that system being bad are legendary. whether this means legendary in the sense of "so true everyone talks about it" or legendary in the sense of "a not true thing that people talk about a lot anyway because they're superstitious" is unclear. Like I say, I've never played it so I don't know. That was the whole point of the sentence I typed up there.

  16. I always thought the big deal with Blue Rose was the setting, and the idea that the whole thing is just too girly, not manly enough to be a proper RPG. The game rules (True 20) were well liked enough that Green Ronin actually stripped the setting off them and repackaged them as an alternative to regular d20. This review kind of captures the attitude I'm used to running into when the game gets mentioned.

    Of course, this is kind of beside the point of your post, which says this thing that really rings true to me personally: "but really, this is like just us swishing the wine around in our mouths and spitting it in the sink." And I say this as a guy who is just as guilty as the next of wine-tasting my way through RPGs.

  17. Apologies. The attempt was for humorous snark, not condescension.

  18. This is a tough one for me for while I agree with what your saying overall, I definitely have systems and games I don't much care for and certainly like some alot more than others.

    Case in point, Adam's favorite game setting, Star Trek. This universe has been officially represented three times (so far), by FASA, Last Unicorn Games and Decipher respectively. When I play Star Trek nowadays I use the Last Unicorn ICON system and wax nostalgic about the FASA system but honestly just don't like the CODA version by Decipher. Why? Not sure. Its not a terrible system and in fact, worked pretty well for their Lord of the Rings RPG and it isn't that different from ICON. At the same time its Last Unicorn/ICON, FASA and than Decipher on the bottom in my book.

    Games I played and would never play again? Rolemaster maybe...just to complex and cubersome for my tastes. I'm sure thousands of fans love it but its just not my cup'a joe.

    Testing games was something of a hobby for me between 1983 and 1999. I think I've run, played or read through nearly every game system and than some made during those years.

  19. Zak, ever given Over The Edge by Atlas Games a look? Just curious.

  20. I’m a fan of Robert Fisher’s because so often, when I read what he has written, my reaction is “That is the Truth.” It goes beyond crystallizing what I have felt but not previously put into words. Your article is “the Truth.” At its simplest, all a game system has to do is get out of your way. While there are games out there that are overly complicated in their search for ease of play (I call them “simplex”) at heart most game systems work. It is the “feel” of the game and, where one is developed for you, the game world, which holds interest for me. “Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic” is, for me, the perfect example. The system does what it needs to but the feel of the game -- the horror alleviated with a touch of humor -- fits my gaming style and imagination perfectly. In the interest of full disclosure, Richard Tucholka is a friend of mine but he is a friend because of the game(s) he created; I am not a fan because of friendship. To a degree D&D falls under this category because the rules suggest (the flow) how the game should go unless you intentionally go in another direction. A good game system helps you run, helps define the feel of the game that is so important, a poor one gets in the way of gaming and you should keep the world but toss the system (telling your players that you are doing this) and sub another or wing it, if you are good at that.

    OTOH, I feel that if you tell your players that you are running a system (with House Rules variations) you have entered into a social contract to do just that. I do roll percentiles -- high, bad result, low, good -- when speed is of the essence but generally, if I tell my players that I am running, for example, AD&D 1st Ed., I run that system. The trust you mentioned.

    BTW, I had an interesting, if somewhat painful, experience with intentional subversion of the natural direction of game rules. The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson’s precursor to GURPS, has that same touch of humor mixed in (children listed under “Nuisance Creatures) as Bureau 13. I ran, briefly, in a TFT game that was supposed to be “gritty” and “realistic,” if a fantasy game can be called realistic. Get over it, guys. You can slaughter women and children in an RPG (the GM considered this “realism”). It is a GAME buddy! I have played a black villain, willing to cause any amount of pain and suffering to make a buck (Space: 1889 -- think of a young Ernst Stavro Blofeld). That is not ME (I consider my own alignment Neutral Good). This “realistic” game left me flat with its incessant focus on justifying the torture and slaughter perpetrated (almost exclusively by NPCs associated with the party) and I quickly dropped out.

  21. If you want a game system to hate, both F.A.T.A.L. and deadEarth are available free online. I'm not sure F.A.T.A.L. is supposed to be. deadEarth, bless its broken little heart, is released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

    deadEarth is just completely unplayable. F.A.T.A.L. is...something else entirely.

  22. @Adam: You took the blog comment right out of my mouth. The kicker is that the guy was serious. With such gems as the 'anal circumference table', the 'urination skill', and critical hits including 'the dick head is decapitated at its dick neck... Bodily Attractiveness -20%', it's quite a sight to behold.

    I realize that this is irrelevant to the blog post, but I think every DM should see F.A.T.A.L. at some point.

  23. I've heard that there is an actual print version of FATAL.

    The worse new game I have encountered recently is Deathstalker. It is just insane. Like a twelve year old hat got his home brew campaign published.

    Synnibarr really is horrible.

  24. Add me as another fan of Blue Rose. Granted, the system fluff (ie the campaign world) grated on gamers as, essentially, Good Already Won and the term 'romantic fantasy' made the little boys cry. The system itself was designed to be story-heavy and rules-lite. Plus, you know, you could play a race of awakened animals. And gay and lesbian relationships was normal in the campaign world.

    If you can find it, give it a read. It may be too watered down for the folks who love to tinker with the fiddly bits of char-op, but I really liked its simplicity.

  25. herobizkit--
    1st paragraph-
    i know about the blue rose fluff. i'm an RPG blogger.

    2nd paragraph-
    I'm really not shopping for a new system

  26. The problem with FATAL is that it claims to be a serious representation of a mideval fantasy setting (Misgynism and religious doctrine are par for the course) but tries to also inject satire and humor into a supposedly serious representation of mideval life. It also doesn't help that some aspects of the game are incredibly offensive to me personally, for instance, there are about 10 magic spells that are solely used for raping women.

    FATAL aside, I cannot think of a system I would flat out refuse to play if my GM decided to run it, and while there are settings I dislike (I don't like most horror games) there aren't any systems that I find unplayable.

  27. That whole thing about wine and getting drunk and having fun,blah blah blah, is so insightful and introspective that I quoted you on my Facebook page.