Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Relearning How To Breathe

When I ran Continuum, I had to largely give up the notion of controlling the pacing of the game. Players were time-travellers, and could bop over to whatever moment caught their interest. There were things I could do to provide direction, but if they really wanted to focus in on a moment, or span over the slow bits, they could do that themselves, and as long as they didn't frag themselves in the process I couldn't stop them. This made for a game that was very player driven, and every moment was entertainly pregnant with opportunity. It was a great campaign.

That "I've got ADD, lets span" dynamic made me a little lazy, though, and thus when I ran the Amber campaign that started the week after my Continuum campaign dropped curtain, I did a poor job of pacing. Instead of grabbing the reigns and cutting scenes, I spent too much time waiting for players to do things in the first 6 sessions. I sort of blame Continuum, because it required I take such concise notes, and left me really wanting to prep and record absolutely nothing. One campaigns success contributed to another campaigns failure.

When I ran Scion, I definitely got the pacing back under control - at least outside of combat. The combat system was pretty volatile, however, and the game rules had ugly tattered seams. I started house-ruling to mend them, bit by bit. As the campaign progressed, and the basic math of the system fell apart, I had to compensate by getting much more aggressive in my house-ruling. When the second chapter of the Scion companion released in PDF, I tore into it, leveling harsh criticism and pre-emptively houseruling like a man possessed. I don't regret that, in and of itself. White Wolf composes beautiful settings, but their "too many cooks" approach to authorship results in sloppy, even contradictory, rules with holes you could drive a mac truck through. Scion is, hands down, the worst perpetrator of White Wolf's signature flaw that I've read. The game is desperately in need of a revised edition, but they'll probably never make one and I'll probably be too jaded to buy it if they did. End result was a game my players are still talking lovingly about the setting and plot, but which I hated to run. Too much hard work and frustration.

So now I'm running Deadlands Reloaded. It's "rules medium-light", meaning a little lighter than D&D 4th, but a step heavier than vanilla Savage Worlds. It's got some extra complexity (beyond Savage Worlds) in the Magic system, Dueling rules, a few other card draws, and the way Bennies work. The first printing had some rough edges. They weren't nearly as tattered as Scion's rules, and Pinnacle released a nice little FAQ that mended 95% of the fraying. It's still not perfect, but it's more than playable.

Problem is, the campaign that went before is casting a shadow on the various games that follow. Just as Continuum allowed me to focus on flavor and PC freedom at the cost of pacing, Scion has inclined me to focus on niggling rules flaws at the cost of... well, I'm not sure at the cost of what (beyond perhaps my peace of mind), since we've only done character creation. I am noticing, however, that my gut instinct has become to bitch here and then house-rule. It's kinda sad how quickly I jump to fix what ain't necessarily broke.

For example, in Deadlands Reloaded, I find that the Poker Hands chart isn't perfectly to my liking:
  • it isn't terribly clear whether "Jacks of Better" counts as a whole hand rank above a mundane pair when you're dueling, or if that's just for spellcasting. (Same vagueness with Ace High - is it just a tie breaker in a duel or does it count as a hand rank above slop?)
  • the system ranks Straight Flush above 5 of a Kind - despite 5 of a kind requiring a Joker. Jokers burn the PC a little, so I'd think you'd wanna make the best possible hand require them.
  • they didn't make the Dead Man's Hand special. The hand is both black aces, both black eights, and whatever you believe the 5th card Wild Bill Hickock drew - I lean towards Jack of Diamonds myself - seconds before he died.
For those incredibly minor "flaws", I nearly house-ruled it to duplicate the hand ranks of Doomtown, the old Deadlands CCG. That would have been silly and pointless, since I'm the only person in the group who played Doomtown, and the vagueness about a pair of jacks in a duel will hardly ever come up. If and when it does, I can rule on it. The other two complaints are just flavorful things, and functional (playtested!) mechanics is probably more important than cramming just a little bit more flavor into an already zesty rule set.

As I look through the Deadlands Reloaded book, lots of little things like that keep popping up. What can I say? Scion made me gun shy. I need to learn to just "go with the flow" again, instead of riding hard to head off potential rules-flaws at the pass. I need to relearn how to relax and breathe.

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