Friday, April 23, 2021

Worlds Beyond System

My current pet project of modifying the rules of F.A.R.M. Champions into something I am currently calling 'The Dungeon Experiment' is going to take some time.

It's not that the modifications I'm making are particularly complex or difficult to put together but rather that I just haven't had the time to sit down and do more than a little at a time. Hopefully I'll have something to show you guys before too long.

Today I want to talk about something a little different...

The ever-thoughtful JB over at the always intriguing B/X BLACKRAZOR has made some recent posts and comments that definitely have the gray matter working over time. 

In one of his latest posts (as of this writing), JB discusses returning to West End Games' 1st Edition Star Wars D6, which as some of you may know is one of my all time favorite RPGs and perhaps my favorite game system-wise. However, and you may want to be seated for this Barking Alien fans, he wants to redo the mechanics to use multiple, polyhedral dice. 

After getting over my initial shock and disgust, I experienced further shock and disgust. Why not paint over the Mona Lisa? Make an anchovy cream pie why dotcha? Replace those classic blue jeans with polka-dots on plaid while you're at it!

At the same time, aren't I doing the exact same thing with The Dungeon Experiment? 

I am putting together a 2D6 based, level-less, Medieval Fantasy RPG with Species and Classes, very different Magic, very different combat, and basically being just as sacrilegious to Dungeon and Dragons as JB is being to Star Wars D6. At least not to me. In my view there is a big difference.

I am not trying to make a 2D6 Dungeons and Dragons. I am not taking the game of D&D and changing things so it only runs on D6s. What I am trying to do is put together a Medieval Fantasy game reminiscent of D&D that is heavily influenced by Western Fantasy Anime and Manga from Japan. Also, I found F.A.R.M. Champions, a game whose creators seem to have had a very similar goal in mind, so really I am making modifications to that game to get it even closer to my vision.

Trying to deconstruct Dungeons and Dragons and then rebuild it as a D6 based game sounds like a lot of work and it's work that I don't think would guarantee the results I want at the end. It might use my preferred die type but if it's still just D&D when the dust clears then I will have failed in my mission. 

Altering the simple and super functional D6 System used for Star Wars to (What is in my opinion) the much more cumbersome use of everything from the limited D4 to the very swingy D20 seems extraordinarily strange to me. Counter-intuitive even. I just don't see the point in it but to each their own. 

When I brought this up, one of the things JB noted was - and this is the bit that prompted this post - and I quote, 'there's no particular dice type that is inherent to Star Wars or space opera.'

Right...huh? Oh course there isn't. There isn't any die type or rule system that is inherent to any genre and vice versa. Genre itself has nothing to do with mechanics at all. Why even bring this up?

Then I noticed it wasn't the first time JB had mentioned this or something like it. In a response to a comment I made regarding how my buddy used to run our old Champions campaign JD stated, 'Sounds like the players had a lot of narrative authority in play. Is that standard in a HERO system game?'

Again, the question strikes me as very peculiar. What does the system have to do with Player Agency? Sure, some rule sets encourage or discourage Player Agency and creativity to some degree but whether or not a GM gives players narrative authority in their game is dependent on the GM and their style of play. Barring modern Indie RPGs where a particular style of play and the way you interact with it is intrinsic to the game's design, most RPGs are systems of mechanics, a genre and/or setting, but how you use it is on you. No?

Maybe not.

This connection between Rules and How the Game is Played is something that has always fascinated me. I am a firm believer in the fact that the uses and abuses of D&D that put me off to the game aren't necessarily the fault of bad Gamemasters but rather components built into the very fabric of the game. Things that plague D&D games such as Min-maxing, Munchinkin-ism, Rules Lawyers, Railroading, and the quintessential Murderhobo pop up much less often in other RPGs in my experience. 

Likewise, the reason I play so many different systems is that each - if done right IMHO - gives a different feel and it is that feel you want for that game. Case in point, my favorite of all gaming subjects, Star Trek. Each incarnation of the game feels slightly different, though all cover an aspect of the atmosphere of Star Trek the franchise. 

FASA Star Trek was, like many of its fans, very interested in the fine details and minutiae of the Star Trek universe. The game was designed to let you create and run a crew and ship of Starfleet, Klingon, or other peoples who explored space and encountered new life forms and ancient mysteries. This wasn't a game about a TV show. This was an RPG about a living, breathing universe that made it's own internal sense. One the various television shows and movies allowed us to view. 

Last Unicorn Games' Star Trek game was similar, though often a bit more tongue-in-cheek. A little mind you; not overly so. It was definitely a universe and your character was definitely a being living in it but *Wink* - Shhh (beckons you over while checking to see if anyone else is listening) - it's all based on a TV franchise. *Wink. Wink* Pretend you don't know that. 

Star Trek Adventures by Modiphius Entertainment has a very different feel and vibe from the other two. Here, you are creating characters for a Star Trek TV series. In my head canon each group's campaign has its own Facebook, Twitter, and webpage put out by Paramount/CBS. Things work the way that would on a show far more than how they would work in a Science Fiction universe, let alone in reality. 

However, this all reflects setting or type of game and game mechanics. Not genre. Nothing about this is connected to genre per se. 

Going back to the questions and ideas that started me thinking about this, does a Fantasy RPG NEED Races and Classes? No, Ars Magica doesn't really have that. Do Superhero games require a certain type of mechanic? No. They need to have rules for things you'd see in the Superhero genre, though Champions does this and so does Kapow! and they couldn't be more different mechanically. 

Is any genre or setting directly tied to any sort of mechanic? I would generally say no. Certain specific settings obviously benefit from certain mechanics designed to reinforce the way the reality of that setting works.

If you want a game that resembles a TV Soap Opera, I would imagine that rules for creating or determining your connection to the other PCs would be important. In Fantasy games the rules you have regarding Magic will greatly influence how Magic is used and perceived. ALIEN has a wonderful Stress and Panic system, perfect for a game set in space, where no one can hear you scream and you and your companions freak out over the unknown. As I've mentioned, a close look at this led me to use the ALIEN system for the Sci-Fi Comedy Red Dwarf, which oddly works in a very similar way. 

Anyway, this ended up somewhere between a thought exercise and a tangent and I'm not sure I came to any great epiphanies or conclusions. I suppose my final word on the subject for now is let the fluff match the crunch and vice versa and achieve that by any means you see fit. The only rules that are wrong for a given genre are the ones you can't make work. 

I hope that both JB and the view public out there understand I am not picking on him. Quite the contrary! He made me think about this and for that I am thankful. I am very eager to see where he goes with his Star Wars DEverything system. I want to know not only how it will work but why it works better for him (and perhaps others) than the classic version. Go check out his blog and wish him luck!

Now back to slaying goblins and eating meals made from monsters...

Barking Alien


  1. Don't think you're picking on me at all. I consider this conversation a "discussion" rather than a "debate" (at least, at this point!).
    ; )

    I haven't finished writing up my "Polyhedral Star Wars" document, but the basic notes are available in today's post for the curious. Over two game sessions of play, I've found the replacement of dice pools (coupled with Target Number mods) to work fine...and better in some ways. However, folks who have played a lot of D6 over the years will certainly be used to its nuances and will probably find it the more comfortable fit...I don't disparage that. MY players don't have that particular experience under their belts, so (to them) this IS the system.

    [that is to say, they have no inherent expectations of a particular way to play Star Wars. Will the system mimic the feel of the genre? That's the hope. For me, the D6 system had issues (at times) modeling the films...though not nearly so much as later systems (D20 was especially bad)]

    I don't think there's anything wrong with doing a 2D6 fantasy adventure game; I wrote a D6-based OD&D knock-off myself called Five Ancient Kingdoms (largely based on the D6-only Chainmail system). Plenty of systems use different randomizers, and while some can feel more-or-less "genre appropriate" (Castle Falkenstein's card use, for example) there's nothing awful against changing type.

    But systems DO matter, and "system" is more than just the shape of the dice being rolled. Different folks are more comfortable with some systems (I've known folks who used Champions for all their gaming needs...likewise folks who were GURPS fanatics, or FATE), but different systems provide a different feel, and some work better than others for certain genres and/or themes.

    [I understand not everyone shares my opinion]

    Now a point of clarification: when I asked my question about the HERO system, I was speaking of "narrative authority," NOT "player agency." These are two very different things. I'm a fan of player agency, and RPGs that promote it (like old edition D&D). Shared narrative authority is a different thing, and different games have a different emphasis on how much is in the hands of the players (as opposed to the GM). In a game like D&D, players generally only have a say over what their own characters' intentions, and even when successful, the DM generally has full narrative control with regard to what "success" looks like. But that doesn't mean the players lack "agency!"

    System (i.e. rules, mechanics) have direct impact on how narrative authority is divided between players and GMs. Some games (like InSpectres, Over The Edge, Apocalypse World, Amber, Maelstrom) give much more authority to players. Some RPGs (like Fiasco or the original Polaris) cuts the GM from play altogether and delegate ALL narrative authority to the players, who share it between themselves. That doesn't necessarily mean players have more "agency;" rules may constrain just what players can do (see Blood and Sand for an example) shutting down players intention outside the specific direction by the game system! And that's long as you want to tell certain kinds of stories. Ron Edwards's games like TrollBabe and Sorcerer have very specific kinds of stories to be told, despite sharing an ample amount of "narrative authority."

    And so, too, does does Call of Cthulhu (which constrains player agency with both its theme and the Sanity mechanic)...or Vampire the Masquerade, or Horror Rules, or many other RPGs. Especially ones given to emulating a particular "genre." Even Star Wars.

    Anyway. Just wanted to clear that up. Your description of HERO implied more narrative authority being shared than what I expected. But that's not the same thing as "player agency."

    1. Interesting. I think I blend Player Agency and Narrative Authority together a bit more than some do and not just in my head.

      In practice, if the player says their PC is doing something that is A)genre/setting appropriate, B)logical and/or sensible for their character to be doing, and (most importantly) C) doesn't run counter to or negate a GM created shared narrative already in play, I allow and even encourage it - rule system be damned. (What I mean is regardless of the system we're playing).

      It is a very common feature of my games to open with - 'this is when and where we are, this is what is going on, what is your character or the PC group doing'?

      This is perhaps more common in some games then others and I agree it might not be appropriate for all genre (though I bet I could make it work). I've done it across many different games/systems/campaigns and it generally helps to get the players more invested in the game.

      Maybe I also play games where this is more easily doable as well. Not sure.

    2. A DM running D&D could (if so desired) do the same thing: ask “what has your character been up to since last we got together?” In some (especially long-running) campaigns, this might even be appropriate: a DM might not want to bother with “shopping trips” and whatnot on game time and might trust the players to track their own upkeep costs, etc.

      But if the player said: “well, I spent a week in the king’s prison for stealing the Crown Jewels, but was finally able to escape thanks to the help of a servant lass I’d befriended at a tavern (whose brother happens to be a respectable sorcerer!), and was just wondering how I’d go about retrieving them from this cave that I o my just discovered is a troll lair...” Well, genre appropriate or not, it’s far outstripping the authority granted to a player in D&D despite NOT running counter to the GM’s ongoing narrative...because in D&D the DM is given sole responsibility for crafting and controlling the environment.

      As D&D was the first major RPG, most GMs growing up in that system carry similar assumptions/expectations to other RPGs...unless specifically directed not to (I.e. by a game’s instructions). Players also, growing up in D&D, might have similar expectations of what is the GM’s responsibility. I know you’ve written before about players not being on the same page with YOUR expectations.

      It’s all well and good to say “rules system be damned” but mechanics can be designed to support the kind of play you prefer. And doing so helps align everyone’s expectations.
      : )

    3. Good points all. I was very lucky in that my early experiences with players was very good, even if my early experiences with GMs was very poor. I did most of the GMing and ran the games how I wanted to run them, establishing for the lot of us a more proactive, shared narrative authority style.

      I also started with D&D in 1977 but by 1984 was rarely playing the game and running it even less. My friends and I grew up on multiple systems and alternating styles of play.