Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A good GM can save a bad system.

A good GM can save a bad system. I played several new (for me) RPGS this weekend at the Emerald City Game Fest, and I had a ton of fun. In spite of the mechanics. These games had ridiculous off-kilter mechanics, but the GMs kept the games rolling and provided more than enough color to overcome the flaws in the systems.

The first game was octaNe. The scenario was a riff on Big Trouble In Little China, and I gather that's not the usual setting for the game, but it was a lot of fun. Towards the end, the silliness meter cranked up higher than it goes in Big Trouble In Little China (and that's saying something, isn't it?). Ranma and Sailor Moon both showed up in the final scene, a couple PCs got replaced by their evil twins, things just got... odd.

All of which certainly justifies using some light-weight system (instead of, say, Feng Shui, or d20). Yet, I can't say I cared for octaNe. The mechanics were very unbalanced. The pregen I was playing had a Daring rating of 2, and (since the other pregens didn't) that meant I almost always acted first, almost always succeeded at every task, and ended every conflict with more plot points than I started with.

I can't imagine building any sort of dramatic tension in this system, given that on any die roll the PCs have at least a 71% chance of winning... the whole conflict. Because I was going first every round, I was constantly having to reign myself in, force myself to leave something for the other PCs to fight (or do). It was not easy.

I feel particularly bad for one of the players in our group whose best stat was Magic. Magic goes last each round, _and_ you have to pay plot points to activate it. In theory this is somehow compensated for by being broadly applicable and open-ended, but given the level of narrative freedom that any of the other stats already has, I can't imagine how that could possibly compensate for such drawbacks.

To add insult to injury, his second best stat was Charm... which sits in the middle of the initiative order. Ever try to make a social roll in the middle of the round, _after_ you comrades have already killed half the enemies? Oh, sure, on a success the rules let you narrate a sudden peaceful resolution, but it will rarely pass the disbelief test. "After you ambush and behead most of them, I convince the survivors that there are non-violent solutions to our disagreement." Sure.

Painfully bad system. I think the exact same scenario would have been far, far better with Wu Shu, Risus, PDQ, 3:16, F#, or any of a dozen other "fast and fun" systems. I can't think of any reason why I would want to use octaNe's system. Admittedly, I've never read the rulebook, so maybe there's something I'm missing here... but I doubt it.

Honestly, I'd rather just have everyone roll a single die at the start of a conflict and highest roll narrates how the entire conflict wraps up. It'd honestly be better balanced. As it was, I'd always go first, and nearly always had the freedom to end the entire encounter on that one roll, so spreading that around to the other PCs would have had to be an improvement. I have never, ever in my decades of gaming experience, had to fight so hard to keep myself from abusing a system. The flaws in octaNe are so obvious and horrid, it's amazing it ever made it into print (and even more amazing that there are supplements and expansions out there).

And yet we had fun. The GM did a few really interesting things outside of combat that really saved the game from its own conflict resolution system. His previous plays of the system had indicated that there'd be a plethora of plot points sitting unused, so he came up with a way to make them meaningful. He got these really fancy chinese envelopes and stuffed them with "fortunes". Clues, plot hints, solutions to puzzles, revelations of background info, and some real game-changers like "your character is actually a ghost". So, between scenes, we cashed in excess points for clues, and they really helped coax us along several possible plotlines. He also prepped color photos of all the locations alluded to in the clues (and many of the villains), so there was plenty of instant flavor and atmosphere, and a sense that we were "on the right path" even though it was free-form. Without these clever structural cues being available, I imagine our narrative freedom would have imploded the plot before the end of the second conflict scene. Well done, Mr. GM! I may just have to steal your red envelopes for my own future campaigns.


Rafa said...

Great article. As a curiosity, do you think players make out and value the GM efforts?

Anonymous said...

I agree Rolfe. I had a blast and Wade's lucky money idea is worth stealing. But yeah, the system, as far as I could tell without reading it, was just terrible.

Doug Wall said...

At my last convention, I played a Spaceballs game with a great GM, but a system that was a hack of Burning Wheel. Action comedy just doesn't work that well with scripted combat.