Greetings again, everyone. So, for this time around I thought I’d take look a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, one that has been a real creative outlet for me and helped me navigate those awkward teenage years of just trying to not get my ass handed to me while I found my way in the world. I am, of course, talking about rpg’s, and I thought that it might interesting to delve in and share some of things that I personally enjoy and look for when I play or run a game.
For starters, let’s kick things off by saying that I’ve played a lot, and I do mean A LOT, of different rules systems over the years since I’ve started gaming, ones that have covered nearly ever genre or setting you could think of, along some that I bet you can’t. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across a handful that I absolutely fell in love with and had to run out and buy straight away, and at the same time I’ve been forced to suffer through others that I still go to great lengths to avoid like the plague. What I’d like to do is discuss just exactly what works for me in a system, while at the same time touching on just what turns me off. Now I won’t be going into any game in particular this time around, I think I’ll leave that for our next get together, which I already have some ideas brewing for. But what I can do is give you guys an idea of just what a good game is to me, and why having fun with it is more important than anything else.
To jump right in, I’ve found that most rpg’s tend to fall in one of two categories, rules light that focuses on streamlined ease of play while eschewing realism for sake of narrative, and the other being heavily detailed beasts that put the emphasis on tactical simulation and being as comprehensive and precise as possible. I will say that something heavy with a ridiculously high amount of realism and detail definitely has its place, but if you haven’t figured it out just yet, I tend to lean in the direct of the lighter and something that interrupts the flow of the game and story as little as possible.
To me, the fewer stats, skills, superpowers, derived values, magical abilities, and modifiers you have in a rpg the better, allowing the game to run smoothly and putting the spotlight on the players who are trying to tell and take part in the experience. For example, I remember being at a convention some years ago and playing in a fantasy system that I have always taken a pass on ever since. It was very heavy on stats and skills with quite a few derived values when it came to defining what your character could do. If I remember correctly, I think the character sheet was somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four pages long, front and back, with even the weapons and spells having big stat blocks of what they were capable of. I remember one of the players saying he wanted to take a shot at an enemy with his bow and the mind‐boggling number of calculations that had to be worked out just for a simple ranged attack. There was the attacker’s bow skill compared to the enemy’s ranged defense, plus the quality and type of bow being used, minus the oncoming enemy’s charging speed, plus the attacker’s special abilities he had with a bow, and then all of that modified by the range (yeah, you think that’s a long sentence just try sitting through the actual math). It took five minutes just to calculate the damn shot which ended up missing anyway which then had to be recalculated the next round because the range and speed had both changed. Thank god that no actual damage was done, because then we would be talking hit location, armor, severity of the wound…well you get my drift. To say that this game was all too much for me is a gross understatement, it completely took me out of the session and killed the next three hours of my life, and it was only the first damn fight!
So where exactly did everything go off the rails here? Well, the system was just trying to be too “realistic” in the rules and game mechanics it was portraying for my tastes. Now I will admit that it did a very good job of simulating exactly what it was going for, defining every little aspect of a character that a player could think of and then having them engage the game world in the most detailed of a way as possible. But I think that was the problem, there was not a single thing in this game that wasn’t rolled for or cross referenced against numbers on a chart, with every toss of the dice eliciting a pause in the action so the results could be compared to another value and then the outcome having to be looked up or calculated with unnecessary math. I will say the rules were very solid, concise, and exact, but also very numerous and cumbersome, which is exactly why I failed to connect with the game and didn’t have a good time. Now there is nothing wrong with big plodding monsters of a system like this, some players love having every little thing defined and quantified for them, I think it has a lot to do with how analytical and ordered our mindsets can be and how they differ from one another. But for me, all the numbers and boundaries that I felt were here were just too much, and it killed any spark of creativity or inspiration I might have had for the game by forcing me to wade through just too many rules.
Now on the flipside from the above, I recently attended a local gaming convention a couple of months back and played in game that was an absolute delight. The rules were all printed out on a single two-page pamphlet (yes, you read that right, two pages) and all of our characters were defined simply by their personality qualities rather than any numbers. Their attributes were anything from how they viewed themselves or the world around them, to how they might react to seeing someone they loved in harm’s way or confronted someone they absolutely hated. It was all very narrative and story oriented, with little use for stats or skill listings of any kind. We were all playing characters in a Telenovela setting (Mexican soap opera), I told you I’ve played in some weird stuff. I was tasked with taking on the role of the beauteous dandy playboy with his tiny miniature yorkie, Trejo, in tow who just wanted to stop his hair from thinning and help his best friend find love. We were all able to pick our own personality traits and character quirks to play out and then went around the table to establish relationships with other players to kick start the story and then we just went with it. It was a blast! I think in a four-hour session I might have rolled the dice about five or six times, that’s it, everything else was roleplaying. It was just a group of gamers coming together to tell a story, with pretty much whatever we said or wanted to do just happening with no dice needed and then the action just progressing with a little guidance from the GM. It was light, it was simple, it was creative, and most importantly it was fun, allowing for a good, flowing gaming experience that I will remember fondly.
So, what am I really getting at with all of this and what do I truly appreciate in a game? For me, I like something that gives me just enough guidance and direction to know what my character is capable of, and that’s it. I don’t need dozens of stats or skills to quantify what I can do, special abilities and powers are nice but keep the descriptions to a minimum, a few derived values are fine but when I need to bust out a calculator to figure them up it’s gone too far, and please, for all that’s holy, don’t give me something where every roll has to be looked up on a chart or table for the outcome, keep it between the players and what’s printed on their character sheets. In the end, I like simplicity and ease of narrative over meticulous tactical simulation hands down, where I can truly get into the character that I’m playing rather than having to worry about their positions and movements in combat or on a battle map. I appreciate the roleplaying aspect of the journey, not so much all of the crunchy numbers that define what my character can do while he’s taking it.
Well, I hope that gives you guys a little better of an idea about what I appreciate in my games. Rules and numbers are fine, but when they become too weighty and numerous, I feel they almost drown the system in restriction and over complicated arithmetic, which usually means it’s going to be a hard sell for me. When I do play or run something, I want to feel like I’m taking part in a fun story, not like I’m burdened by the task of doing homework in a social setting. For our next adventure, I think we’ll continue this theme of taking a look at the world of rpg’s. I said earlier there were a few that I really like and wanted to go into more detail about with you guys, so I’ve got four or five lined up that I’d like to share my thoughts on for our next go around together. What are they, you ask? Well you’ll just have to come back next time to find out. Later, gang.