Thursday, May 8, 2008

Elegance and the Heart of RPGs

Got an email today from an old friend I hadn't talked to in ages. He recommended I look at Primetime Adventures and FATE (the later of which I'd read when a different friend recommended it).

In replying to him, I ran through an overview of RPGs, and it helped me to put recent developments of my tastes in gaming into words. Most of the following is quoted from our email exchange:

In general, the more simplistic the rules set, the better the game. Simple rules let you focus on the drama, the story, and the characters. Every moment spent thinking about rules just undermines that. For my tastes, RPGs are primarily an acting / storytelling medium, with just a touch of game involved to handle dramatic conflict. I suspect the trick is to simplify the heck out of the rules, boiling every action down to no more than 1 die roll, and a structure simple enough to never require looking anything up during the game.
  • I agree that FATE reads really good, but I have yet to play it.
  • Amber works, it's just plain solid provided the GMs ego never enters the picture.
  • Dogs In The Vineyard seems to work, but I haven't played it enough. Really just tested it a tiny bit. We'll likely be using it for Firefly later this year.
  • Universalis is awesome (though best as just a way to set up a game run in a slightly different system).
  • FUDGE's only real flaw was that the 7 words they chose didn't have an order that all minds settle on - if they'd just used numbers 1 to 7 the game would demo better. As written, it trips people up on the first session.
  • GUMSHOE strikes me as amazing for Mystery games.
  • Continuum worked great once I "dumbed down" most of the complexity right out of the system and just focused on the complexity of the setting.
  • d6 Star Wars was decent as long you weren't playing Jedi - trying to emulate the lightsaber battles of the movies just breaks it.
  • With the exception of 3 sections that contradicted each-other, old WoD LARP actually functioned pretty well (provided your disbelief wasn't ruined by the Rock-Paper-Scissors aspect). I think it was at the cusp of having too many powers - a neonate game ran well, but an elder game was a few too many rules to expect the players to internalize.
  • And I've played (and crafted) some homebrewed lite systems that work really well.
  • 3.X D&D (and this pains me to say, since I grew up on D&D, and I have a couple buddies who work at Wizards) doesn't do enough to encourage good stories. It tries too hard to be a tactical combat system, and it has way too many fiddly bits. It can be a good game, but in order for it to consistently be a good roleplaying experience, you have to really abstract the rules down to nothing (or at least to True20). I'm hopeful that 4th Ed will fix some of that.
My friend said this:
You know, I'm starting to believe that RPGs really aren't fun at all, and anyone who thinks that they have had a fun RPG experience is remembering wrong. :)
there's been nothing that I WANT to do in an RPG that videogames don't do better than tabletop games. :)
I suspect he included smileys for fear that I would react violently and argue vociferously.

But in a lot of ways, he's right. He's absolutely correct that video games can (and often do) a better job of immersing you in environment than RPGs - vids have picture and sound, which for all the attempts at GMing a good description, just blow RPGs out of the water 9 scenes out of 10.

It's certainly easier to find a good video game than a good GM.

And as far as tactical challenges, those are certainly better handled by video games (or maybe a really streamlined miniatures game) than by RPGs. So, you've definitely got a point there.

The one thing I prefer about RPGs which I don't have much faith in technology improving on, is the opportunity to act. I love up-close improvisational drama. RPGs allow me to do that without having to make a big production of it.

The problem is that then games like 7th Sea and Scion make the process of running it such a chore that you might as well go join some big theatrical production. Same thing with LARPing once you break 20 players with any frequency. It's all just too much work, and the GM ends up spread too thin.

Fiddling with byzantine rules, hiding behind a screen, rolling tons of dice and adding up successes to compare against difficulty charts, all of that just undermines the things RPGs do well: getting your friends together to share in a joint story where every one gets to contribute to the plot and the drama and the characterizations.

So far, I have yet to see an online or video game that actually gives me a chance to genuinely act. None I've played allow me to (at least) improvise in largely-unlimited directions. If you know of one, please send me a link, 'cause it would almost certainly have to kick butt.

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