There’s too many people deserving of a mention, or of thanks, so I’m not going to name anyone for fear of leaving someone out 😛
While it’s true that a good Games Master can make a good game out of just about any system, that doesn’t mean that system doesn’t matter.
There tends to, still, be a trend of people using mismatched systems. Either for economic reasons (2d20, 5e) or because of fashion/cultish reasons (PbtA). As a result there’s a lot of compromised games out there without tailored, or even properly selected, systems for their game world.
Imagine trying to run a Hong Kong action film game using Basic Roleplaying.
Imagine trying to run an existential horror game with Feng Shui.
The best games work well more often, because their system and setting are in synergy, complimenting one another.
Call of Cthulhu works best with BRP, because BRP is granular, simulationist in many respects, and yet its monsters break all the rules and there is a way of tracking sanity.
Hong Kong action movies work best with Feng Shui because Feng Shui encourages over the top descriptive action with nigh indestructible heroes.
Military SF works well with Silhouette, because it scales and can be used for skirmish-level miniatures play as well as standard tabletop RPG.
Whether you’re making up a new game or kitbashing an old one into shape, the right system can make all the difference, or at least do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
Bonzai Street Fashion Hat: 100eb, a delightful Asia-Pop design, straight from Tokyo.
Cherry Blossom Breath Mask: 250eb contains active nanites in a composite layer that actively hunt down and destroy any rogue particulates, bacteria or anything else that shouldn’t be there. Updatable via an agent app to block new diseases and poisons.
MunguNgozi Pauldrons: 100eb, made of a complex, semi-transparent smart-polymer. Provide 5 protection to arms, but repair themselves of 1 SP per day.
MunguNgozi Breastplate: 100eb, made of a complex, semi-transparent smart-polymer. Provide 5 protection to arms, but repair themselves of 1 SP per day.
Sweet Fanny Pack’Ems Utility Belt: 50eb a useful and secure belt with pouches and hooks for easy storage and use of items.
Sheya Compression Leggings: 200eb, provide 2SP to the legs, and should you suffer a life-threatening wounds to the leg, constrict and contract around the wound, stemming the flow of blood and providing anyone stabilising you with a +2 bonus.
TMH Adroa Heels: 200eb, smart-heels that help steady your balance, allowing you to move – at speed – in heels. +2 to rolls for balancing and no penalty to running/climbing etc from wearing them.
Skinwalker Cyberlegs: Install: Hospital, a cyberlimb that can cover itself in realistic skin, or draw it back as and how you want to fit different occasions. Comes with a standard hand at no extra cost or Humanity loss. Cost: 650eb HL: 1d10
Skinwalker Cyberarms: Install: Hospital, a cyberlimb that can cover itself in realistic skin, or draw it back as and how you want to fit different occasions. Comes with a standard foot at no extra cost or Humanity loss. Cost: 650eb HL: 1d10.
Orbitix crystal throwing stars: 1,000eb each, monoedged, orbital crystal blades,1d6+1 damage, treat armour as though it were 1/4, rounding down. So finely tuned and balanced that they give +1 to hit.
Digitus Impudicus Cyberdigits: These colour coded fingers change from yellow to red once fired. Each digit contains a 20 gauge sort shotgun shell, with an effective range of 5 metres, doing 2d6 damage on a hit. 100eb each, HL 1.
Mirai-Ha Ninja-To: A short, ‘ninja style’ sword of almost unbreakable alloy, with a climbing wire hidden in the handle (50 feet, will hold 250lbs of weight, the handle comes away to stop you cutting yourself). 2d6 damage, 1/4 armour (round down).
Dice probabilities and fractions can be a bit of a pig, even though we play with dice all the time, they can still trip you up.
What’s the likelihood of rolling a 6 on a d6? 1/6.
How many times must I roll to all but guarantee getting a 6? 9 times, not 6. You only have a 66.5% chance od rolling a 6 in those 6 rolls.
If you’re making tables using more than one dice, there are more combinations that will hit the middle numbers, so put the things you want to be more common in the middle (on 2d6 5-7) and the things you want to be rarer on the ends (1 and 12).
The chance of rolling an 18 on your 3d6 Ability roll is 1/216, and even with roll 4d6, drop the lowest, it’s not that much better. Yet in our games, the statistics are linear, when they might be better off being logorithmic – to get really complicated.
This is also what drives one of the most important system decisions in many game designs, whether you use a single flat die (d20) or a combination of two or three dice to better represent a probability curve around the average sorts of result.
Something that really hasn’t been explored, given the advent of online random number generators, that can pick between any values, are truly large die ranges (d1000 only seems to have been explored in FATAL of all things) or very specific ranges: An axe that does 1-37 damage potential, for example. There’s interesting possibilities there.
Most gaming theory is bollocks. Esoteric, mutually contradictory nonsense, often misapplied from other disciplines. Most of that theory is also applied to computer games, while role-playing games are very much their own creature.
What little game theory has come out of gaming itself isn’t that much better. Mostly attempts to categorise and define the different mechanics, modes of play and their overall feel.
Perhaps the most well-known of these, though it has since been dropped, is ‘GNS’ theory. That games are a mixture of Game, Narrative and Simulation – to which I would add ‘toy’.
A low Game system might be something like Amber Diceless Roleplaying. A high Game system might be something like Iron Kingdoms or Cadwallon.
A low Narrative system might be something like an OSR game, where the dice lead the action and story emerges from action. A high Narrative system might be something like Apocalypse World, where there are constant modifications of narrative and the narrative leads very much over any other aspect, moreso even than FATE.
A low Simulation system is something that is not trying to represent reality, or even genre emulation. Again, Apocalypse World would meet that definition. A high Simulation system goes to a great deal of effort to replicate reality – or a fictional hyperreality. Millenium’s End or BRP might be more in this camp.
To that I would add ‘Toy’, which defines how directed or directionless a game might be. A high Toy rating is someting like playing with lego, or a plot-free sandbox world. A low Toy rating is something much more directed. How much a Toy a game is might well depend more on the GM and players than the game’s default setting.
This might have fallen out of favour, but as a design framework it is still quite useful.
How important do I want to make the mechanics? How deeply can you customise and dick around with the system?
How important is the story? Do I want to include player overrides, remove some GM power, allow get out of jail free cards? Do I want the story to be more in the hands of the GM, or to emerge from play?
Is this more of a sandbox toy, with pieces that come together and fall apart, or is it something much more directed and pointed? Railroaded even?
My game Actual Fucking Monsters, for example, might rate (out of 10):
- Game: 4/10
- Narrative: 6/10
- Simulation: 4/10
- Toy: 8/10
It’s not mechanically complex or deep, it is a story-led game, but without much story led mechanics. It is more genre emulation than simulation, but it is trying to simulate types of horror tale (Near Dark, Nightbreed), and it is largely open-ended. It can run itself without the GM needing to do much of anything.
Theory is interesting, but I don’t know that there’s anything valid here yet. Studies, for example, show that representation matters in passive media, but not so much in active, interactive media like computer games. That would suggest that TTRPG representation is not as important as people are making it out to be – probably because you’ve always been able to make up your own characters.
TTRPGs are just too niche to attract decent scholarship, thhough there are notable exceptions. As we saw back in the DiGRA days, being a niche just makes you a target for ideological, rather than science-led scholarship.
More’s the pity.
I’m going to tell you something that most of you already know, but which a lot of you aren’t going to like.
The tabletop hobby has always been open and welcoming.
The tabletop hobby has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to being progressive, despite what you may have heard.
In fact, it used to be more open and welcoming than it is now. Ironically it is the efforts of the supposedly progressive that have made the hobby more closed off, wary and gatekeepy.
Because the old guard has been constantly insulted and painted as villains. Because it has had stupidity foisted upon it which harms the art and the fun of roleplaying. Because they’re being gatekept out of their own hobby. Because simply having different priorities in games, they get monstered and called awful things.
When you run an open house, it’s all well and good so long as nobody takes advantage.
After you’ve had Aleister Crowley over for dinner and he’s turned up naked and shat on the rug, you might well be excused for introducing a vetting process for future guests, and being a little less open.
This also rather makes one question why anyone would want to join a hobby that they seemingly hate everything about.
RPG gaming was tolerant and open precisely because it was escapism, because people left their bullshit at the door and whatever size, shape, colour or anything else anyone was they were there FOR THE GAME.
Now people seem to want to bring their bullshit with them, not to examine it with artistry, metaphor and allegory, but to just play themselves, in a kinder, softer version of reality. Not a challenging imaginary world of excitement, adventure and really wild things.
Leave people alone, stop hurling accusations, keep in mind that people who’ve been doing this for decades, might actually have a clue to do it well. If you actually love gaming, stop wrecking it. If you value its ability to bring people together across their divisions, stop fucking that up.
Both the argument from tradition and the argument from novelty are both fallacious. Keep that in mind.
Here’s a quick cheat for you if you need to come up with fantasy names for locations, towns, natural features or even people.
Use Google translate.
Pick a couple of related or similar languages that have the right ‘feel’ to them, translate your phrase, mix match and mingle willy-nilly, and you’ve got yourself something that sounds like a real language (because it kind of is) and which has a ring of authenticity, even though it isn’t really.
Often the more obscure the better, though you may have to use piecemeal online dictionaries for Catalan, Cornish or Old English.
Couple of examples:
Dwarves, I like to think of Dwarves as Welsh rather than Scottish. It’s much more evocative given Wales’ reputation for coal mining and cultural cues that would make dwarves interesting.
Anyway, let’s try a couple of options for people, places and things, using a mixture of Welsh and Cornish (an almost lost dialect from England’s Southwest).
Person: Big Fat Black Lung.
Welsh: Mawr Braster Du Ysgyfaint.
Cornish: Torrek (Big-bellied) du Skeven.
Mix & Match: Tawrek du Skevaint.
Place: Silver Gold Mine.
Welsh: Arian Aur Mwynglawdd.
Cornish: Arghans Owr Hwel.
Mix & Match: Arawell.
Thing: Axe of Deep Shadow.
Welsh: Bwyell o Dwfn Cysgod.
Cornish: Bool a Down Skeus.
Mix & Match: The ancient axe ‘Boladunskus’.
For orcs you might want to mix Russian and German.
For elves you might want to mix French and Italian dialects, though wood elves might be better with a Tolkienesque inspiration from Finnish and Estonian.
Give it a go! Show me what you came up with in the comments 🙂
A large part of what seems to be going wrong, and fuelling the conflicts in gaming is a lack of common memory and experience.
The newer players weren’t around for the Satanic Panic, the Vampire Panic, or even Jack Thompson’s rampage in computer games. If they remember anything, they wrongly remember Gamergate as a harassment campaign, rather than a continuation of resistance to censorship and media irresponsibility.
Even those who were around in the old days seem unwilling, as companies, to resist the more modern moral panics. Sensing, perhaps, the way the wind is blowing, a great deal of cowardice has been displayed, compared to the courage of the past. This seems to be entirely because the new moral panic is wearing progressivism and social justice the way the Bug wears an ‘Edgar suit’ in MiB.
Nor has this current generation endured the sheer awfulness of bullying, book-burning and torment older gamers did. As such, they weirdly come to conclusions that gamers are gatekeeping, rather than protecting themselves, that they were and are racist/sexist/homophobic when the gaming table was always a haven for outcasts and the marginalised.
Talk about victim blaming.
It’s also peculiar to see people who believe so much in the importance of identity exclusive spaces and safe spaces, wilfully and gleefully vandalising important ‘safe spaces’ of others, recasting victims as villains, creativity as evil, verisimmilitude as exclusionary, hyperreality as wrong-think rather than immersion.
If they had been through the same formative events, I don’t think they’d be so ready to hurl accusations, to demand censorship or to pillory anyone who even mildly disagrees with them.
Maybe they’ll learn.
Oh noes! A player can’t make it for some reason! You don’t want to continue the main story and game and leave them out, so what can you do? What’s a good substitute for a regular game session?
1: Something Else set in the same World
Some games are properties with many games and interpretations. Some have boardgames, card games, computer games that you can play together and more. Doing this you can keep the players in a similar mindset and inhabiting the game world until the next session, with a bit less of a gap and disconnect.
2. A One-Shot
If the game is simple enough, you could run off a one-shot, simple adventure and some new characters, just to have something else in your specific iteration of the game world. You can even import whatever happens there, or even the characters you have created, into your main game.
3. Do some world and character building
Go over the character backgrounds, their place in the world, figure out more about them and how they interface with the game world. This can give character specific background, side events and knowledge for when you do get back to the main game.
4. Any other game!
Play something else. It’ll scratch that itch and bide you over until you can play again.
5. Take the L, and Use the Time
Cancel the session, apologise to everytong, spend the extra time to make what you have planned for the next session even better, tighter and well planned.
Does simplicity make a game better or worse?
Simple games with simple rules are easier to grasp, easier to remember, generally use less paraphenalia and are easy to prep and improvise from. This is great, but it does come at a cost.
Simple games tend to lack depth. They find it harder to simulate complex or ongoing actions. They tend to lack the capacity for character improvement in a granular way, often lacking range in statistics, skills or powers, or not having enough different ways for you to advance. So they’re less suited to long term play, or rags to riches play.
Some players like all the fiddly bits to games, and so like games with more granularity, more depth, more expansive and granular opportunities to develop and change. Some Games Masters like it too, but the more fiddly and prep-heavy a game is the less easy it is to improvise, the more tempting it is to railroad.
The ideal game, perhaps, from both a player and GM perspective, would be one that’s simple enough in application that it’s low prep and easy to do thing, but which has enough granularity and system permutations to tackle a wide variety of situations.
Many games seem to make the mistake of an unsatisfyingly simple core mechanic, which they then fuck up the advantage of by layering hundreds of interwoven exceptions into (PbtA and Tri Stat, for example).
Can you think of a game that strikes the balance?