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What games do I want to play?
By Steve Dempsey
I've been thinking about this recently. There's been quite a few pizza boxes under the table given that I've recently turned 40 so looking back at all the gaming I've ever done, I've think that I've become much more demanding in what I want from a game. It's not a mid-life crisis where I dump my d20 for 2d10 and trade up my edition 5.5 Cthulhu for edition 6, it's about discernment. I've paid my dues with unengaging backgrounds, fantasy heartbreakers and plots that wouldn't get airtime on Sunset Beach; from now on I want quality.
This article is also a bit of soapbox for my views on various games in general and in particular the distinction between New and Old School games. Those who design systems that support a certain style of play and those that don't.
And I'm afraid that d20 comes in for a bit of a pasting. It's probably a pretty easy target sitting as it does, at the top of the gaming pile. But if you like d20, think it's the best thing to happen in roleplaying since Gary was escorted off the premises, then good for you. Write in and show me the error of my ways.
It seems that a good starting point is to look at the elements that consistently occur in the games I've enjoyed the most. And I think it comes down to this:
1. Good players.
It matters naught if your uber-GM has the game to die for if all the players do is argue, arse around or just even fail to engage. The first two are annoying but the latter is the most soul destroying. Given that in most games I play the GM is pretty clear up front what it's all about then there is no excuse. Turn up and tune in. And don't hog the spotlight either!
2. Space for self-expression.
I don't mind if there's a plot, as long as the players can do cool stuff too. And by cool stuff, I mean creating characters that aren't just always extensions of their 21st century selfs but people who can make stupid decisions for good reasons, be noble, fail, triumph, be spiteful, be lame or even self-sacrificing.
And I don't mean combat. Combat is undemanding conflict at best. Sure there are strategic decisions to be made but if the end result is PC death then it's a game killer. I want real choices with difficult decisions that are rather more engaging than the black and white offered by most combat. Moral decisions are the obvious choice, but there are also emotional issues such as love and loyalty than can be explored. Mystery too is fine, but works better for me if the crux is not a "spot hidden" roll.
4. No levels.
Well, not just levels, but 'advancement' in general that focuses on the mechanical aspects of the character. If my PC starts an interesting sub- plot about commercial involvement with a local hood, it won't matter much when I get two more levels and can push him around all I like. Focus on hard mechanics tends to overshadow softer developments because they destroy the (power) relationships in the game world. Even the weekly dishing out of XPs in our regular GURPS game is starting to get me down.
Although the first of these criteria isn't so much down to the choice of game, I'm now going to go over the four games that, in no particular order, seem to support those factors:
1. Over The Edge
No levels and self-expression? Well, the system is so laughably large- grained that there seems to be very little difference between characters. Player Characters have 4 or 5 traits rated 1d6 to 4d6, and that's it! Whereas in D&D two first level fighters might have very different abilities and feats, some people argue that OtE characters are all pretty much the same. But they'd be wrong on two counts.
In D&D, with the emphasis on combat and, particularly at higher levels, destructive power, the bottom line is about how much damage you can do in a round. If you play a PC whose focus is not destructive power, like a rogue, in a mixed group you soon find yourself with little impact on the game because fighters and mages are so much more powerful. So players tend to maximise character improvement so that their PCs are always on the upper boundary of death-dealing power. The main differences seem to be about range. Sword, bow, or fireball are the options, or short, medium and long.
In OtE, two fighters are likely to have 4d in their main fighting ability. Or in other words, they are optimised to deal the most damage possible. The differences however can be extreme. One might be a "reluctant pugilist" and the other a "bullying streetfighter". The weapons might be the same, fists, but the self-expression in the description not only makes the characters sound more interesting but also means that the character must be played in a certain way. There's a penalty on the dice roll if you don't.
This is possibly slightly disingenuous. The D&D feat trees and multiplicity of classes do allow for more self-expression as the character develops but this is always much more constrained than the OtE method. There are pretty clear paths for character development and if you don't stick to them you end up with a PC who'll be jack of all trades and master of none.
So with D&D, you've always got an eye on what you're going to do with your XP when you reach the next level, and there's always something better you could have. In this respect it's the perfect American game encapsulating everything about the Dream, about the work ethic, the long hours culture and capitalism. It's a one size fits all, McDonalds-hamburger do-you-want- fries-with-that, have-a-nice-day kind of game.
The French edition sets the action on a Caribbean island which is slightly more believable, although this perhaps misses the point.
In OtE on the other hand, your PC is caught up in cracking, if surreally mad, background. The setting is a bizarre and uncharted island in the Mediterranean where Burroughs and Lynch collide. It's a strangely American place where every conceivable conspiracy that might ever have heard from a friend of a friend is true. Aliens have landed, Bigfoot will eat your trash and the Moonies are putting subliminal messages in the crunch in your breakfast cereal.
The final clincher as to why no gamer should be without a copy is that OtE has some of the best written help for GMs ever to appear in a game book. One of these, about what to do about players who play the system by choosing super powerful traits is exactly what a game like D&D is missing. Simply put, if a PC is showing signs of massive abilities then the powers that be will stomp on him because they feel threatened. The game then becomes one of finding who your friends are and drawing them close whilst playing your enemies off against each other. Conflict is thus unavoidable but usually about much more than just who has the most hit points.
Finally, OtE is much more simple to learn than D&D. The rules are shorter than D&D's index.
2. Call of Cthulhu
I don't like Basic Role Playing, this game's system. It's inconsistent in application, full of patches and does nothing to support the kind of game play that most Cthulhu players I've met seem to like. So why do I like it? There are two main reasons, the great background and the powerlessness of PCs.
Lovecraft's (or perhaps more properly Derleth's) Mythos is one of those great literary inventions where the authors did just enough to create a mystery and give a good sense of flavour without fully fleshing out the background so that it is an ideal vehicle for roleplaying. With Lord of the Rings, so much of the history and mythology has already been filled in by Tolkein that you find your self scratching around in the books for scraps of untouched wilderness to make your own. With Lovecraft it's the opposite. So little actually describes the plans of the Mi-Go or the raison d'être of Yog-sothoth that there's acres of space for the aspiring GM. Even if you make the PCs children's TV puppets and the deities large stripped stuffy cats, it still works!
In D&D, if your PC has high stats and good weapons, your likely to win through. In Call of Cthulhu, this actually matters very little. Sure high power might mean you go mad less quickly than your friends. But if they are all climbing the walls with pockets stuffed with dynamite then you probably don't want to hang out with them anyway. In effect, the background and the SAN mechanic nullify all the pointless gumph in character generation, the bits where you have to assign 350 percentile points to a list of 50 skills, only four of which you'll ever use in a game. This tends to overshadow the flavoursome parts where you choose a background, decide how much your PC earns and who his friends might be.
I forlornly hope that if mechanics and background worked together the game would be a world beater but I've come to realise that the scrappy system is what attracted many of the players in the first place. Although it is probably the background that kept them coming back for more. Gamers are rather conservative for the most part and narrative enhancing systems seem to frighten many. Simulation is seen as a safe option even when it's pretty pointless in application, as it is for this great game.
This powerlessness also sets up the conflict for the players. Although not always voiced, there is usually a subtext of how far characters are prepared to go to stop the secret menace of the Mythos and it's not uncommon for characters to fail. Nor is it uncommon for them to come into conflict with the wider society something that rarely happens in other games where the homicidal tendencies of characters seem to be the norm. Sure I've nothing against a simple, or even sophisticated, dungeon bash but I don't find much long term sustenance in that form of gaming.
As the main settings for the game are set within the last 120 years, it is relatively easy for players to have more realistic characters than it is within a pseudo-medieval game. Self-expression thus is supported by the easy to use background rather than challenged by any differing notions between the players of how characters might act in a given situation.
And although Lovecraft was not a great writer, his nihilistic fiction hits a nerve and the Mythos oeuvre is ever-expanding. There's probably more fiction that directly supports Call of Cthulhu than any other game. This is not a Glorantha or an Empire of the Petal Throne where background reading is almost a prerequisite to the game. This is here and now, and if you don't do something about it, you and what you care about will be squished by some cosmic juggernaut whose road just happens to cross your path. Call of Cthulhu, the game of heroes!
Even Delta Green, the post-modern version of the game, works well. Here the heroes are set up against people who wish to make some profit from their contact with the Mythos. Well, it's not really Po-Mo, it's probably more like the conflict between different brands of capitalism that is the American political scene. The mainstream is in bed with the Mythos but is heading to hell in a handbasket. Delta Green is the only voice of sanity, i.e. Ralph Nader. Guess who wins the argument, and who wins the war?
Having dealt with some of the more traditional kinds of games, next are two of my favourites from the New School, octaNe and My Life with Master.
But first, a short diversion into what I mean by New School. I did warn you about the soapbox. Prepare to be lathered.
I suppose New School is similar in some ways to the Hogshead New Style range: Baron Munchausen, Pantheon, De Profundis, Puppetland and to a lesser extent the game/critique that is Violence. Both deconstruct our expectations of what a roleplaying game is, although New Style if anything took this further than many New School games. Baron Munchausen is played by making up tall tales, De Profundis should only be played by letter and Puppetland requires players to maintain third person narration when describing their characters' actions
So what am I calling the New School? These are games such as Sorcerer, Universalis, Dust Devils, Dogs in the Vineyard and Capes. Generally self- published small print run games that challenge the usual notions of roleplaying games. These usual notions of roleplaying are that the GM sets up the background, writes a plot and the players interact with this plot in a bid to solve the mystery or advance their characters.
New School games are also very focussed on delivering a specific experience. Old School D&D for example does not say what kind of fantasy game you will be playing. It could be the dark horror of Clark Ashton Smith, the fun investigations of Martin Scott or the fascistic misogyny of Gor. New School games on the other hand, generally have rules that encourage a particular kind of game, such as taglines in Dying Earth encouraging witty banter or "the horror revealed" in My Life with Master enhancing the general sense of impending doom.
Many of the New School game writers have had some experience of the Forge. This has lead to a focus on narrative games and changing the GM-player relationship as the main ways of changing the rules of the game.
Narrative games means games focussed on a premise, usually some kind of moral dilemma such as 'what will you sacrifice to save the planet'. These can be created by the GM as an umbrella for the game or each character can have a different premise. There is then some mechanic in the game, such as Humanity in Sorcerer, that represents how each character is measuring up to the challenge set by the premise. This is how SAN in Call of Cthulhu works, although that was never expressed as what a Forgite might call a "narrative meta-mechanic".
Other such games employ the more usual sense of "narrative" and focus on the story that is created in play. This means that rather than the resolving individual actions as they occur, there is some mechanic for resolving at a larger scale such as an entire scene. There is often some mechanic for deciding on who has "narrative control" and can narrate the outcome of a scene. This can be just a simple dice role (InSpectres) or even involve a complicated bidding process (Capes or Hero Wars). These games tend not to have the same taxonomy of skills that exist in Old School games but settle for a small set more focussed on what the game is trying to deliver by way of experience. Capes for example concentrates on what powers your heroes have, and what kind of person they are. Straightaway you can see that this sets up the Spiderman/Buffy dilemma of great power and great responsibility.
Looking at the relationship between player and GM, some critics have gone as far as to say that the GM is almost an evil presence in the game, taking any power away from the players and, in mainstream games, reducing players to acting out the GMs fantasies. This is possibly the case with some individual GMs but doesn't really describe the design intent of any of the games I've played. Nevertheless, this kind of analysis of power relations (dare I mention Foucault?) has lead to interesting developments in the way games are run. Some games such as Capes have done away with the GM entirely, reducing the game to a series of conflicts set up by the players. In others such as Universalis, it seems as if every player is a GM who bids to control parts of the game. There are many examples between these two extremes where the power to decide on what happens next is shared in some way between the player and the GM.
I don't like all the New School games and I don't even understand how Capes is supposed to work, but out of the half dozen or so I've played, my two favourites are octaNe and My Life with Master.
octaNe is a triumph of focussed design. The book strongly situates the action in the background of post-apocalyptic trash-culture America, gives 45(!) character templates and even a list of what music you should be playing during your games. There are four possible modes of play from psychotronic to Cinema Vérité. After just a quick read you really know what the game is about. It's also about monkeys, the author being of the fully justified belief that everything can be made better with the addition of monkeys. Finally it's only $10 in pdf.
The rules are very light. Players roll 3d6 for narrative control of a scene. Only the top dice counts. On a 5 or 6, the player has control, on a 1 or 2 it's the GM. In between indicates some shared control. There is a hazard mechanism that indicates whether less dice are counted or not. Hazards are entirely determined by the GM through the narrative.
So what's the fuss all about?
Because players have control over the narrative rather than resolution of the individual tasks that make up each conflict in the narrative, they can do things that are not available to players in Old School games. Not only can they attempt to resolve conflicts through task success but they can also do it through failure.
Players can describe how their character has failed in order that the story is better. They can also do other interesting things like changing the course of the narrative, insert their own conflicts and characters and foreshadow future events.
In fact, it's very important in octaNe that players embrace the full range of narrative opportunities because there is nothing quite so dull as a story in which everything goes well all the time. I've not been a player yet but as a GM I've found that the usual role of plot construction takes up much less of your time. Or at least, you have to approach it in a very different way because players have much more control that they might in other games.
See these articles for more on player creativity.
What you find yourself doing is trying to keep track of all the elements that the players introduce and making sure that they get carried forward in the narrative. The other main role for the GM is to frame scenes quite aggressively so that players are in little doubt that a conflict is looming that needs to be resolved. Actually, once players have got the hang of this, there's not so much need to be so aggressive. Players are quite capable of creating their own conflicts.
So, it's a whole new gaming experience that demands much from the players and the GM with the latter required to think on his feet much more so than for Old School games. And that's why I like it.
4. My Life with Master
My Life with Master (MLwM) is a game that redefined roleplaying. It's that innovative. Each player has a character who is a minion of an evil and sadistic master played by the GM. The default setting is Gothic Bavaria à la Frankenstein. The master sends the minions out on errands into the village and they in turn try to break his yoke by making connections with the villagers.
Because this is a narrative game, generation of the characters and the Master is done through cooperation between the players and the GM. This consensus ensures that everyone has a character that fits with the theme for the game and that the Master is suitable for the minions.
In what is a departure from most games, players take it in turn to resolve their scenes. These are framed by the GM to advance the narrative. This means that the GM should take account of the choices the player made during character generation and involve these in the scene as well as being sadistic towards the characters. The resolution system is very simple. There are only three ways of resolving a scene, these are violence, villainy or making a connection to a villager. Success or failure is decided by dice but what this means in the context of the game is narrated by the GM or players.
Where MLwM scores is that, by limiting the ways of resolving a scene, characters are kept simple, but, by allowing narration of the outcome from very loose categories, there is plenty of narrative freedom within the focus of the game (i.e. destruction of the master). As long as everyone is on board with the theme then you can even quite easily mess around with it a bit to produce scenarios for special occasions. I've run My Life with Headmaster, My Life with Santa at Xmas and My Life with Tony Blair on the same day as a General Election.
MLwM is a game that generates conflicts for the players to resolve in keeping with the Gothic horror theme. It is also, unusually, a time limited game in that once the Master is dead the game ends. In this way it does not drag on endlessly when the characters have left behind any semblance of what they were when they were created but keeps the focus on what the game is about. There's no getting to 20th level and having to kill and Titan a day to maintain the advancement to which you have become accustomed. There's no devastating half the kingdom with the flick of an eyelid, including the place your PC was born, because that's what it takes to keep the tension high. At the start of the game of My Life with Master you know what's in store for your character and you can focus on making the story strong, the conflicts meaningful and the final, terrible, downfall of the Master a real moment to savour and remember.
So Over the Edge, Call of Cthulhu, octaNe and My Life with Master are the games that do it for me.The rules are slight (or at least for Cthulhu those that matter are), the settings give a powerful indication of what the game is about whilst providing ample space and structure for players to express themselves and all four have structures that generate interesting conflicts. With Old School Over The Edge and Cthulhu it's the setting that provides this by setting up PCs against a sheer mass of conspiracy or the nihilistic destructiveness of the universe. For the two New School games, meaningful conflict is part of the rules. You can't even play the game without it. And in all four not a level to be seen. So if you too think like me that the unexamined game is not worth playing, then perhaps you might like to contribute a column on why you play those games. Even if it be d20!
Steve Dempsey is Editor-In-Chief of PTGPTB.
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