OK, I’m just going to alienate a large section of my viewership and talk about role playing games here. I play them. I own loads. I’ve been doing this for around 30 years or so and, yes, I should know better and grow up but now I have a wife I’m not so worried about the social stigma anymore.
I’ve not been playing RPGs regularly for a while now; partly that’s because I’ve moved to a different town, partly because I’ve gone back to wargaming with miniature figures and models and partly because the current RPG scene and what’s on offer often clashes with my ideas on what makes a good game.
THE GAMES GOT BLAND
For many years my regular gaming crowd was a set group of people I’ve known for years. We could play almost any game together, it didn’t really matter what, and have a good time…well, mostly. Then some of the old crowd dropped away from the group and new players came in. Great, always good to have fresh blood and all that, but the problem was they didn’t like the games the rest of us had been playing a great deal. Too complicated, too old fashioned and with rules they didn’t like were the main complaints (that and the fact that some of our old guard are noisy when around a gaming table). Whilst we old timers had stuck to the games we’d enjoyed, a whole slew of other games had come along…these were where it was at.
At the core of the new types of games were two basic systems: D20 (where everything is resolved by a single or two rolls of a 20 sided die…keep up, non gamers; there’ll be a quiz later) and the “Savage Worlds” series of games. I’ve tried both and they’re alright, nothing special in my opinion. Savage Worlds in particular is quite simplistic and fairly bland unless you add loads of colour and extras into the game which is like drowning a simple food in various sauces in an attempt to liven it up. I take or leave these games; it’s mainly down to what the game is about and who’s running it that makes a game for me. The system should regulate the actions and allow the players to do the kinds of things that are genre or setting appropriate. I was disappointed in one Savage Worlds game I played to discover that instead of kicking a villain down a flight of stairs (which is what I wanted to do for dramatic effect plus taking them out of the fight) the referee said it would be better to just punch them on the spot for standard, die rolled damage. So it was better to be dull than add a bit of colour because the rules didn’t allow for a little flourish. My old games would have flourish.
So lots of new players came into the club I was at all wanting to know if us oldies were going to run a D20 or Savage Worlds game. They were the new vanilla, the chain store of games, the two systems that were now acceptable to play. Dungeons and Dragons invented the D20 system but now it’s pretty much universally accepted for all kinds of RPGs as a default option. Players seem to enjoy the ubiquity of a system whereas back when I started I had 4 main RPGs I played and all had different kinds of rules all bespoke to the setting they were in. Within 10 years I had a dozen games which used 10 systems. I didn’t feel the need for standardisation, but recent years has seen an increasing drive to system homogenisation. What does this add to the hobby? Not a lot, in my opinion. Is a role playing game about winning fights under a set system, or is it a mystery and adventure to be navigated through? I’m for the latter. So I go back to my collection and noticed….
WE MADE THE OLD GAMES TOO COMPLICATED
One of my stalwart role playing games over the last 30 years has been Champions, a superhero game. You basically designed a superhero and then went out into a fictionalised version of our world to fight supervillains and foil their plans. The game has done a superb job in recreating all the kinds of stuff you read about in the comics or see in the movies. It is, without doubt, the greatest superhero RPG ever designed.
It’s also a really complex and daunting game for the newcomer…and that’s because we old guard made it that way. You see, to design your own superhero you get given a set amount of points. Powers and abilities cost various points and you put them together, subtracting from your overall point total, until you get the hero you desire. Canny and experienced players can really milk the system and the maths to create unstoppable ubermenches and a lot of players absolutely love using/abusing the system in creative ways. Some players want an awesome array of powers but the points system won’t let them have all that so they start tweaking the system, using the system of rounding up to the next whole number to make sure they’re getting the higher number whilst spending the fewest points, loading down their powers with minor limitations to reduce the points costs and all that. Some of this tweaking makes little sense. For example, more than one player in my games over the years has come up with the idea of using gauntlets that somehow reduce the endurance cost of using high strength in a fight. That doesn’t sound very superheroic: You have these gadgets whose power is…you don’t use as much energy when you hit someone. It’s a perfectly reasonable gadget to have if you’re just looking at the rules, but it’s hardly something you’d find in the comics or movies. Superheroes in comics have gauntlets that actually do the smashing and heavy lifting, the flashy on show stuff, instead of acting like wearable Duracell batteries. Also, how did a schlub like my average Joe of a hero get these gauntlets? Which engineers and scientists sat in a lab thinking “today I will invent gloves that save you energy!” instead of “today, I will invent gloves that enable the wearer to smash though walls!”
The new players coming into a game of Champions got lost among this number crunching and inventive system manipulation. They just wanted to know what they had to fight with, to move fast with and what would protect them. Instead, what we gave them, were characters that looked on paper like an algebra equation with so many terms and conditions on each power you may as well have put a tick box next to it asking whether you’ve read the character sheet and agree to use it. We, the Champions old guard, poisoned the well for the new guys. We overwhelmed them, we asked them to put away D20 and Savage Worlds and instead take a step into a whole new kind of gaming system but once we’d got them there, we left them to get their heads around a game that we’d set to maximum complexity. Then we had stand up rows about how to interpret this complicated game we’d created.
Now, as I come to design some new Champions characters, I’m doing a sort of “Champions Unplugged” session. No longer will I streamline the characters to maximum efficiency, I won’t overload them with powers and blag some extra bits through use of spurious use of the limitations rule. Simple, stripped down characters with just a few powers to get them started is what’s needed now. Going back to D&D, no one started with the definitive, finished character that could do everything. You started low powered, just able to survive a fight if you were lucky and kept your wits about you. It’s the same here; start the heroes off as not the finished articles, with simple powers that will improve with time. Why give them loads of plusses to hit things when they’re first starting out? How did they learn that much control before their careers as heroes begun?
I’ve also not detailed all the backstory either with these characters. Normally, you’d choose who’s hunting you, who’s out to get you before the game begins. Likewise, those non-player characters who fill your life, all developed by the players in advance. That maiden aunt you never call in on, that girlfriend in name only, that professor you only ever see in order to get information out of, every one a bland cypher and a reason to use up disadvantage points. Now my idea is to leave those areas blank: Hunted by X, victim in peril you haven’t met yet. This way the reasons for the villain to hunt your character will be played out in the game. Before it was “Hey, Larry, it’s time for us to hunt down Captain Hero”, “Why? What’s he ever done to us?”, “I dunno, mate, it just says he’s hunted by us and he needed 20 points to spend on disadvantages so I guess it’s our turn”. Now, there’ll be an adventure where Captain Hero has foiled so-and-so’s plan again and the villain will now make it personal. “But I don’t want to be hunted by them!” my player will say. Tough, you don’t get to choose your nemesis in life. Likewise, I know you wanted a fit blonde lab assistant as your ward but instead you’ve got Marvin the moaning hanger on. This is the price you pay when you save someone’s life. Things change over time and the hunter you had today might get vanquished and replaced with someone else. Go with it, make it a story. Let the referee lead you on a journey….and if you’ve forgotten how to do that it’s because…
AT SOME POINT, WE NEUTERED THE REFEREE
Again, a bit of an “in my day…” observation. In my day, when I began playing RPGs, Referees (or games masters, dungeon masters, what have you) were tough. I mean really tough. They knew how to kill, maim and mangle player characters in all kinds of imaginative ways. Sometimes not even that imaginative; they’d just get the biggest, meanest villain in the game to kill you outright. My point is, the games were tough to compete and win in. Recently I played a fantasy RPG and was shocked to find out there was a magic item wish list in the game. Before, I’d have to fight and defeat a whole mini-army of beasts to get to the treasure chest only to find there’s about £1-50 in change, an amulet I can’t use and a cherry flavoured lollipop as reward. But I’d keep on going because maybe in that next treasure chest would be riches and something I could use. Now, I’d beat some monsters before the referee asks “what would you like?” and I would answer “may I get the specific item tailored to my need that makes me slightly more effective please?” to which the ref would say “certainly sir, here it is”. Where’s the challenge or mystery in that? In fact, the whole emphasis on role playing games has shifted from the referee being solely in charge, presenting scary ass challenges and then miserly rewarding us for our efforts. It kept us lean and keen but…importantly…it kept the tension in the game going. Now the rules give the beginning player loads more abilities and skills than old games did, because the old games had this habit of being deadly to new characters, in order to make them survive better. A noble idea, but at some point the new starting character is way more advanced than most mid-rank characters from earlier games and they even get to pick and choose their rewards as if it’s some kind of magic item buffet. A review of D&D 4th edition made this point very well: In the old days, the games were biased in favour of the referee, today they’re biased in favour of the player. The pendulum perhaps needed to swing away from an omnipotent ref (and some of them could be right vindictive bastards) but not as far as it has swung. Recently I was in a game of D&D and my character was well and truly splattered. I should have died, what with all the amount of damage I had taken, but I was informed there was a luck roll to be made (just don’t roll a 1 and you’ll be fine). Don’t roll a 1 on a die? That’s not luck! That’s a high probability of surviving something that should, by rights, have killed the character. The game lost its edge for me after that; there was little risk to be had. The new system almost guaranteed my survival unless I was really unlucky. I didn’t need to think through my actions, all would be right as long as I didn’t roll a 1. This explained some of the coarse and knuckle-headed tactics going on in the game: Everyone was walking around as if they had a get out of jail free card. I craved fear and tension in gaming. I wanted the game to be back in the hands of an omnipotent ref who would reward me but only if I played cleverly. The gaming industry pandered to the players too much, and like the humans in the movie Wall-E, we became bloated and lazy.
Simple characters that grow with experience over time, sweat for victory and glory and embrace different rules systems without worry. Three simple things I’d like to see in role playing games once more.