Why do I have so many RPGs?

Copied verbatim, and with permission, from an email exchange with Mike Taylor, with some relevant links added in post. Mike and I have been talking a lot lately about how seemingly random the hit counts are for our posts at SV-POW! A post we really like and think is important and interesting may sink without a trace, while something seemingly unexceptional can rack up tens of thousands of hits in no time.

Me: We’re not the only ones that get them:

Iiiincidentally, while you are over there you might find this interesting:

Mike: “The thing about games based on licences is that they really need to capture the atmosphere of the work they are based on.”

Nailed it.

Me: Man, I need to get to bed, but I got sucked into reading that guy’s posts. I’m a hardcore system nerd – there’s a crate 1.2 meters from me right now with books for, let’s see, 9 different game systems, only 3 of which I have actually played, and only 1 of which I play regularly. And this is my ‘active’ RPG crate! So his style of taking a game and really breaking down its mechanical guts is like crack for me.

I tend to be much more laissez faire about what happens in play – I’m definitely in the “play to find out what happens” camp, and I expect themes and complexities to arise organically just because it’s humans rather than robots making the decisions and rolling the dice. So I was very taken by this bit:

Whilst I can concede that addressing theme is often what distinguishes a highbrow story from a lowbrow story ā€“ the key ingredient necessary to any storytelling effort which wants to consist of more than a series of flashy crowd-pleasing set pieces ā€“ where is the Creative Agenda for participants who want to go into a game with the intention of making a trashy story full of stunts and violence without any elevated moral or theme?

from this post: https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/remembering-the-forge/

“A trashy story full of stunts and violence” sounds like a damn fine RPG session to me – in fact, it sounds like all of the most memorable ones I’ve ever played. And those decidedly lowbrow elements are certainly not incompatible with tough ethical decisions and moments of noble self-sacrifice (see, e.g., Star Wars).

Mike: I don’t get your obsession with rules, especially when they don’t seem to have much influence over your actual gaming. To me, the WHOLE point of D&D is that it’s human-moderated with all the creativity and flexibility that implies, which means that you only need pretty minimal rules to give you a framework to improvise on. Otherwise, you may as well play Skyrim and get all the gorgeous graphics and explorability.

Me: Ah, that was an excellent question, because it made me stop and think.

You are correct, I am no respecter of rules. I have run a lot of systems and although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem.

But that’s an oversimplification. It’s sort of like saying that every telescope solves the same problem of gathering light and enlarging the image. That’s true, and for a lot of people one scope might be enough. But if you’re a hardcore observer, you’re probably going to want a range of tools to fit different observing settings and different targets. And you may want to try out loads of scopes, on the chance that the next one will surprise you with something different, or land a little closer to your unrealized ideal.

The analogy goes further. I may spend a lot of time reading reviews of scopes and otherwise obsessing about them, but I also firmly believe that what one sees in the night sky is much more dependent on determination than on equipment, in the same way that fun around the game table depends much more on the creativity and sociability of the people present than on the particular ruleset they roll with. I still hack on RPG rulesets and tinker with them in the same way that I hack on my scopes.

To sum up this part, https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/ is to RPGs what http://scopereviews.com/ is to telescopes.

That’s only part of it, though.

The other part is that RPG rulesets usually come hitched to settings, and a fair amount of my rulebook collecting is really setting reconnaissance, and looking for bits from other settings that I can port over to whatever I’m playing at the moment (mostly Star Wars and D&D) or thinking about playing. Of the books in the aforementioned crate, only 4 or so are full rulebooks; the rest are sourcebooks, setting guides, or published adventures. I’m pretty omnivorous, and if I’m a ruleset tinkerer, I’m like a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau when it comes to adventures. In the one Trail of Cthulhu adventure I’ve run so far, the monster’s MO was swiped from a third-party D&D adventure that I’ve never actually run using D&D, and it worked out wonderfully.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

That’s as far as we’ve gotten. It’s given me a lot to think about. In particular my assertion that, “although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem”. That’s true to a point, but only so far. Some rulesets do some things so much better than others that they’re a better fit for certain types of stories or scenarios. That will be the subject of the next post.


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5 Responses to Why do I have so many RPGs?

  1. Arthur says:

    Thanks for the pingbacks, Matt!

    I tend to think Mike’s point about human moderation of RPGs as the unique selling point is significant, at least in terms of providing a sort of baseline hurdle that a system has to accomplish – if a game system isn’t providing you with something a bit meatier than you could just get by improvising on a very minimal framework, then the effort put into it is questionable.

    That said, I think you are right that some systems lend themselves to some tasks better than others. For instance, take a system like Shadowrun, where the rules for equipment are rather extensive. If you took that out, you could still run a fantasy-cyberpunk mashup game, but it would be one where the equipment used by the characters would tend to be pure flavour; leave it in, though, and it feels a bit more like there is a real technical distinction between the different cyberdecks or weapons you use, which in turn makes it feel a bit grittier and in turn affects the feel of playing the game – you feel more like the technical expert your character is supposed to be when you’re picking out the right tools for the job at hand,

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    Absolutely. D&D doesn’t have to be about combat, but it offers so many cool options for combat, compared to other forms of problem solving or interaction, that if I don’t hit things on a regular basis I feel like I’m missing out on the best that the game has to offer.

    Thanks for dropping in and commenting. As you probably guessed, I love your blog!

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    Matt says:

    Although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem.

    If I can just invert that …

    Although different rulesets basically they all solve the same problem, they have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others.

    Then it sounds exactly like what programmers always say about programming languages. I could solve the same problem in C or in Lisp, but the solutions would smell completely different — not just in terms of syntax, but in what kinds of concepts spring readily into such programs. I could re-implement any C program in Lisp, or any Lisp program in C; so that that degree they really are interchangeable. But the kinds of ideas you have when programming in C are very different from the ideas you have when programming in Lisp.

    I assume that’s what the different sets of gaming rules are doing for you.

  4. Pingback: RPG combat as a carrot | Echo Station 5-7

  5. Matt Wedel says:

    Yep, you nailed it. I would have written back sooner, but I wanted to keep the powder dry for the already-mostly-written follow-up post.

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