Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Role Playing: Form follows function, setting shapes system

I've been a role-player for more than 25 years now. My friend Eric has been gaming even longer than that. Our interests diverged some time ago. Eric is a big booster of Savage Worlds, and I'm not a fan of generic systems. I understand the appeal, certainly. We're adults and parents, with the responsibilities that go along with that and we really don't have time to learn the ins and outs of a new system every time we want to play a game with our friends. There is certainly some virtue to a modular system like GURPS or Savage Worlds.

For my part, I like systems that do one thing and do it well. I guess I think of it this way: I've had plenty of terrible jobs, but I've never worked in a McDonald's, but from what I understand, they try to design their processes in such a way, that it's hard to do it wrong, that they've been engineered to such an extent that your first impulse on how to cook a burger will probably be the right one.

I like the same trait in RPG systems, where there is abundant mechanical support for the theme the game wants to convey, where emulating the actions taken in the source material will yield similar results. Older RPGs, hardly distinct from their wargaming forebears, barely did this at all.

And, for the purposes of this piece, I'm excluding games that have a great setting not specifically enforced by the rules. Delta Green, in my opinion, is one of the best settings out there, but that's on the strength of its writing and its fantastically imagined NPCs, not the rules, which are Chaosium's BRP ruleset, which I never felt particularly well-suited for the game. (Though the Viscount does make the system dance. However, I think that's more of a reflection of his aptitude as a GM, rather than on the fitness of the system. You can play Hamlet with Battletech if you try hard enough, but the rules aren't going to help you out.)

I suppose I've been thinking about this because I'm undergoing a resurgence (regeneration?) in my interest in Doctor Who. More on that a little later.

Here's a picture to tide you over

Mood is tricky to nail down in an RPG. Both the Amber Diceless RPG and the d6 Star Wars have quite a distinctive mood, but it's one that's really quite different from the source material. While I love them each for what they are, Wujcik's Amber is very different from Zelazny's.

I've always been fond of In Nomine, an RPG from the 90s, where the PCs can play Angels or Demons, which are mostly similar in capabilities. As Fallen Angels, the Demons tend to be dark reflections of their angelic selves.

I also happen to like the understated cover art
The mechanical bit I liked the most was that Celestials recharge their essence by acting in accordance with their nature. A servant of the archangel of animals might recovery a little essence by feeding a stray, or a little bit more releasing an abused animal from captivity. A servant of the archangel of trade might regain essence by earning $1000 in an honest transaction, etc. Whereas their demonic counterparts can recover essence through petty cruelties. A servant of the prince of Greed might regain essence through cheating someone out of $1000.

It's not a huge deal, and I'm not a big fan of the rest of the system (though I do still love the setting), but I really did appreciate that part. If you're going to give me manichaean duality, don't pretend that good and evil are just different names for the same thing.

CJ Carella is one of the great modern game designers and, even though I'm no longer the fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I once was, I still think the early seasons were brilliant, and the game captures them wonderfully.

My favorite mechanic for the BTVS RPG was that Vampires take five times normal damage if staked through the heart, but only if that damage would be enough to kill them. If it won't bring them below 0 hit points, then it only does regular damage. Carella came out and said this is a way to emulate the way Buffy usually slaps the vampires around for a little bit before staking them, and that's a great bit of design right there.

So....Doctor Who. I love this game. I sometimes have my problems with the show, but this game is great.  It seeks to emulate the game by giving adversaries like the Daleks stats that are difficult to best in straight combat, and prioritizing talking over other actions. (Actions have the following priority) "Talkers, Runners, Doers, Fighters."

I really, really like that the game has so much support baked in support for its play style.

I've been disappointed by a lot of supplements in my time, but those for this line have been consistently outstanding. The first Doctor sourcebook was good enough to get me interested in William Hartnell, but more than that, it really looked at and tried to explain what made the First Doctor's adventures different from what would come later, and there is such a wonderful...thoughtfulness to it. I don't think fans always make better products for properties we love, but we do tend to think about them at great length, and that does lend a depth not found elsewhere.

There's also a sly sense of humor to it. One of the disadvantages you can select for a character is an allergy to a specific item. "The substance should be something one could reasonably be expected to encounter occasionally (such as ammonia or aspirin), but not something so common the Time Lord is endangered every time he steps out of the TARDIS (such as rock quarries)" Heh.

It's really great. I'm trying to pester some friends into joining a campaign, but no luck so far.

So, feel free to use the comments section to talk about games you love. (Or volunteer to join my game if you are so inclined.)

I leave you this. I liked River Song at first, and much less each time she showed up. It seems my daughter has inherited this dislike:

Lily: Who's that lady on the cover?
Me: Her name is River Song.
Lily: That's a ridiculous name. If she got shot, she'd regenerate into
a My Little Pony.

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