Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pick A System Already

I’ve been poking around RPGnet a bit as of late, and it’s the usual mix of the good in with the bad. It’s the awesome stories about gaming table events, great ideas for off-kilter games, Exalted threads in abundance, and 1,000-post love-in threads for Nobilis.

Another sort of thread that remains popular is the threads asking people to recommend a gaming system (usually noted as “Sell Me On _______”). These can be brutally exacting, difficult, and will still feature at least once person enthusiastically recommending Wushu, seemingly oblivious to the fact the original poster wanted a mix of Rolemaster and the HERO System.

I think at times we worry too much about the nuances of system; whether Castles & Crusades is better than Dark Dungeons or Labyrinth Lord for our next game. Discussion of system and mechanics is a bit part of the hobby for many (the biggest part for some), but I think like anything else, we tend to go overboard with it.

It’s really “System Paralysis”, of a sort. We’re so worried the system we choose won’t be perfect for our playstyle that we waste time we could be creating stuff, writing for our games, or better learning the ropes of a perfectly serviceable system we already own. If a system does 90% of what we want, we still search for that missing tenth, or search for it when we could be filling in the blanks ourselves. Dice gimmicks, alternate mechanics—we’re still out there searching for that White Whale, seemingly ignoring the Generally A Bit Pale Whale we already have on our harpoon. It’s The Next Big Thing, and we’re going to jump on it, until we find out we don’t really like mechanics X or Y.

Meanwhile, the worn, trustworthy copy of D&D Rules Cyclopedia we’ve had and run our most successful games with sits in the corner, waiting to be used once more.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t do a little bit of homework before running or trying something. If you’re happy with Rolemaster, running Dogs In The Vineyard might be an unpleasant surprise if you don’t learn a bit more ahead of time. That said, I think there’s a point of diminishing returns. We’re talking about tinkering with random probability and dice. Nothing’s going to be perfect.

So, no, don’t sell me on a system. I might check it out, but even if I try it, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t mind a bit of houseruling, and it beats shelling out $20 or $40 for a new RPG. I guarantee you 80% of the people swearing it’s “a perfect game” or “their go-to system” will have moved on to something else in six months or a year. I think if we really tried to do what we could ourselves with whatever system is on hand, we’d save some money and time, and probably get something closer to what we wanted besides. And RPG publishers probably wouldn’t like us very much.


OlmanFeelyus said...

I do agree with you about the diminishing returns and I think a lot of the sell me stuff are from people who aren't able to game on a regular basis (not their fault usually). On the other hand, when I am running stuff, I am constantly running into mechanics and rules issues that make the game less fun. So when the campaign is done, I'm always in the "well that system was great except for X" mode which then leads me to "maybe someone has addressed that x" and I go searching.

And the thing is, while I also do not agree with the newer=better fallacy, there have been some innovation in design that has made my and my group's gaming much more fun. My dissatisfaction with 3.5's fascism (the rules tell you what kind of character you can have) led to GURPS. My dissatisfaction with GURPS slowness led to Savage Worlds. Looking for something more realistic and deadly led to ORE. Stumbling upon Barbarians of Lemuria (thanks to the online hype), made me realize how effective a well-structured light system can be. And so on. All these developments have made my gaming more fun at the table.

Zachary Houghton said...

I definitely can respect that. Of course, I believe there are systems that work better than others for certain groups or styles. I do think, though, that we as gamers spend too much time on the minutiae, flitting from system to system. That was more to my point of the article. I think at times we’re looking for that 100/100 system, whereas we have a system we could already toy with on our own that could be much better, and for potentially less time and money.

But heck, mechanics gurus and collectors have their place, too. I’m not trying to lecture or anything. If anything, it’s more a realization of some of the behavior I’ve seen from not only my gaming buddies, but myself as well.

Emmett said...

I agree if you're looking to keep playing the same kind of story. If you like the feel of the games you've been playing, there's no reason to change and good for you.

The exception I would make is that a change in system changes the story telling (or at least it can). Things like the speed, lethality and even the probability of a dice mechanic can alter the story.

I have to admit I've never switched systems just to switch systems. When I switch it's because I want a new story to play in.

Alex Schroeder said...

Sometimes people ask me why on earth I am still using Labyrinth Lord and they want to sell me on something "same same but different" – Barbarians of Lemuria, Dragon Age, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Dungeonslayers, etc. My response has been "the question is not whether the game is good—I assume it is!—the question is whether the game significantly better than my current favorite."

Zachary Houghton said...

@Emmett: I think what you're describing are much bigger jumps. "I want to do X or Y, and this system only does 20% of that". I think that's a pretty solid reason to switch.

@Alex: I think there's a lot of "same, but different", especially when it comes to classical games and the OSR. S&W, LL, C&C, Dark Dungeons--honestly, I can get pretty close to what I want with all of them. For me, the big factor in picking a favorite was the fact that Castles & Crusades was such a good meeting ground for the d20 crowd and fans of older iterations of D&D.

Marshall Smith said...

A few counter-points, if I may.

Every game has problems. Some of those problems are obvious, and some are not. Some can be easily solved by the hobbyist gamer with a few house rules. Some require such a change in viewpoint that it requires either an expert designer or a unique insight to make it happen. For those cases, you want to pick up the new game to see what the designer did to address your problems.

There are ways to roleplay that we haven't even thought of yet. Story + setting + game is a complicated thing, with all kinds of ways to set priorities and interactions. You want to pick up the new game to see how the designer brought entirely new ways of playing to the hobby.

For some of us, gaming is a lot more than just kicking around with a few friends on a Saturday night. It's a passion. You want to pick up the new game because you are passionate about all the games.

There are thousands of possible settings out there, even if half of them are just variations on major geek properties. You want to pick up the new game, not for the mechanics, but to read the story and experience the world.

I will admit that gamer ADD can be a serious problem. And, it's true, the market today is seriously glutted with games. But, as someone who's been stuck in a group for eight years now that refuses to consider anything other than 3.x D&D, I'm not sold on the merits of "pick a system already" either.

Gleichman said...

I agree and disagree.

I agree in that once you find a system that matches your needs- just stay with it.

I agree in that if you don't find a system that matches yours needs- create your own. Then just stay with it.

A different system is only required if the needs change. Most often some changes in your existing choice can meet those new needs just find.

I haven't changed game systems in 30 years save for version updates.

I disagree however that this is possible for most people. That's because they keep picking crap systems, but they never realize it.

Marshall Smith said...

@Gleichman - So, out of curiosity, which system did you find 30 years ago that *isn't* crap?

I would also maintain that, for some of us, the system that meets all of our needs hasn't actually been written yet. Or, possibly, has been written, but we haven't read it yet. That doesn't mean that what we're buying is crap. We're just buying a whole lot of 70% solutions, and trying to overlap them to cover all the holes.

Gleichman said...

Home grown rules for Fantasy, first played in 1980.

For other genres it's been Hero System with some long standing house rules and construction guidelines. From around the same time.

Zachary Houghton said...

Good discussion, guys. I appreciate it.

@Gleichman: I know for me, looking for games for a long time was an exercise in futility. I didn’t know what the heck I wanted, so I grabbed onto any gimmick offered. I wish now I would have spent more time tinkering with systems that pretty much already worked.

@Marshall: Thanks for that. I do have a question re: your group. Do they stick with it out of habit, or are they happy and feel it covers all of what they want in a RPG? It sounds from your comments as if that’s perhaps not the case with you, correct?

Zachary Houghton said...

@Gleichman: Out of curiousity (mainly because I can't remember), did you stick with Hero 5E? Weren't there some issues you had with the 6th edition?

Sorry for the tangent.

Gleichman said...

HERO 6th did have a few good things in it. And some horrid things in it.

We did the Morrow Project campaign using 6th edition to see how well it worked. Left us with mixed feeling (mostly we just hated opening the ugly book to be honest).

Currently we're... mixed. One player hates it. One doesn't care. And I'm on the fence.

My next campaign is fantasy, so the final decision won't be made for a while.

guttertalk said...

From a slightly different perspective, I enjoy the system discussions as a newcomer, though they can be tedious and pedantic. I'm in a campaign now that uses 3.5e with house rules, and I love it, especially the combat which some find too slow.

Still, as I would like to GM a game, I enjoy learning about new systems. But it's hard to really get how the system changes gameplay because I don't have the same reference as others who've played several systems.

Gleichman said...

@Zachary: I think not knowing what you want is the major road block.

I"m convinced most people never figure it out. So they keep switching games, or they fall back upon their intro to the hobby because that's when they had the most fun because they didn't know better.

Roger the GS said...

A bad system can ruin a good GM's game but the best system in the world can't redeem a bad GM.

But a community largely made up of actual and would-be game designers isn't tryin to hear it ...

OlmanFeelyus said...

Alex Schroeder makes a good point about the "same but different" phenomenon. When I look for a new system, it's usually because I'm also looking for a very different feeling and playing in a very different genre. But when I get the itch for some classic D&D it can be almost dizzying the options, and they are all so similar. My instinct there is to just use the Rules Cyclopedia.

@Marshall, I feel you man. I was there once. Find another group.

fewilcox said...

Fortunately for us, we're in the 20% who are sticking with our go-to system. My wife and I have been primarily GURPS 4e GMs for the past five or six years. We'll generally play whatever anyone wants to run (except D&D 3.x) but, with the exception of my ongoing HackMaster 4e now 5e game, my wife and I nearly always use GURPS for every campaign.

It's great not having to learn a bunch of different rulesets. Only needing to know two is great.

Marshall Smith said...

@Zach - It's largely inertia. They just don't want to be arsed changing, especially when they have all the books. The bizarre part is how several of the players STILL DON'T KNOW THE SYSTEM!

@Olman - Unfortunately, my wife likes the group, so quitting would be awkward. I have found another group to game with in addition, though, and they're great guys.

@fewilcox - Yeah, if GURPS works for you, it's definitely a system you can ride forever. It never clicked for me.

Marshall Smith said...

@Roger - But, there are more sides to the situation than you describe. A good system can make a good GM great. A good system can also help guide a bad GM into being a better GM. Finally, a good system can go a long way to helping any GM help his players be better players.