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Mon, Dec. 5th, 2005, 11:41 pm
RPGs and the Golden Red Herring.

I noticed "the lessons of D&D" by shatterstripes with my over-sized Internet eyes just now, and feel motived to write. Over the last month or so, cgranade has been hosting an RPG with thetakogun, raiblu, a few other compatriots, and myself as players. We're using a super-hero themed system called Mutants and Masterminds (ha-ha). Compared to other dice-based system, it is open and extremely flexible, but needs a lot of game master attention and experimentation.

Okay, read all of this stuff — including the Suspiciously Awesome paka's comment — before continuing.

The campaign that I mentioned is the first time I've ever played an variation of a table-top RPG, makzu's experiment aside. (Sorry, Makzu, that was more Internet-top. (Mmmmm: the Internet as a top. Sounds like a l337 time.)) Even with such a short time playing, I can see a few patterns emerging. I'm willing to bet that every system has some Golden Red Herring built into it, and that inherent flaw tests the personalities of the players.

Shatterstripes (AKA Peggy, Patron Lady of Vector Art that is BETTER THAN YOURS) mentions that many players chase those points down: loot, levels, experience, ability scores, and gold points. The system is built for it, she argues, noting that most of the source-books were devoted to those points and not storytelling of characters. I think she's right, and I'm even going to expand on it: every RPG system has these little prizes in it. D&D has loot and levels, with the rewards of character power. Mutants and Masterminds has instead experience-like Power Points, with which we directly make our characters stronger. Rifts is... Rifts. All these games have the open and obvious built-in temptress of Munchkining. That's why the card game Munchkin is amusing: it is the distillation of the entire issue. (It might also be a round-about way of attempting to solve it, and I wouldn't put it past those sneaky bastards!)

You can't win these games. There's nothing at the end of that tunnel of experience. The games do not get any more fun with increasingly larger numbers. I suppose there are things characters can do with all that stuff that is like winning: building an empire, becoming a god, or just really upsetting the game universe. Those have a very limited appeal, though: there's gods, empires, and roaming disasters enough. Besides, there's always a bigger fish out there. Thus, a good player attempts to do something different. What's something? Everything.

So, players face a choice when they pick up some dice. They could chase those Golden Red Herring, or they can open themselves to the possibilities. Maybe they can let the GM tell them a story in which they get to engage. Maybe they can explore a whole new world, or play and interact with interesting people that are not possible in our universe. It's a great big multiverse out there, and you have the d20.

Now roll initiative.
Nat twenty.

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 03:10 pm (UTC)

Heh, I used to have the most vicious arguments with my friends in high school about this stuff! They'd insist you could basically run any style of game with any system, and no game really limits the mood of an adventure at all. I thought they were patently full of crap. :)

I mean... try running a gritty pulp adventure with the Paranoia rules. "Okay, a .38 pistol is equivalent to a projectile weapon... rolled a 20... um, Don Sforzando is now a pair of nice Italian shoes, surrounded by a thick red vapor. O.o " Or Vampire the Masquerade... with Toon? Yeah, I guess you could adapt the bare bones of a system to do whatever you want... but that's not the same. Rules systems are part of an act of worldbuilding. They imply a certain reality. And like you and Peggy said, they also imply a certain sense of priorities. If you write an RPG that reads more like a miniatures game (like D&D's immediate ancestor Chainmail pretty much was), it's gonna play like one too.

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 03:48 pm (UTC)

Point taken about the systems corresponding to mood and feel. M&M has nothing in so far as stuff-get adventure rules, so there's no point in a quest to get the +5 Sword of Kill Shit, as you'd have to pay for it with Power Points anyway (call them Balance Points and they make more sense). On the other hand, the insane flexibility of M&M allows you (but doesn't do it for you) to focus on individual dramas and to build truly unique characters. There will never be another Ferris Smith, nor another Dishonored, nor another Alex, another Maria, another Kaze/Whisp/Poison, another Eden, another Fluffy, etc. Never will you see a kitsune quite like Kitsune (PL ∞, anyone?), as She is defined by more than a class and level. Hell, not even all PL ∞ characters are the same- Kitsune could never summon even a small amount of the Blast power, no matter how hard she tries. She doesn't have it. On the other hand, it is possible for a PL 1 character to have Blast, so they could do something that she never could.

M&M is, though, vulnerable to every bit as much munchkining and abuse as any other system. No werewolf should, by virtue of being a werewolf alone, be able to reach escape velocity by jumping. Just as M&M gives the flexibility to create characters, it gives you the flexibility to betray characters. That flexibility, unknown to D&D, is both the strength and weakness of the system. M&M requires a much more active DM, and a more decisive DM (part of the problem I'm having), but allows for styles of gaming also unknown to D&D. That set of restrictions that D&D gives you also makes it that much harder to place D&D characters in another time zone (+5 Sword of Kill Shit versus Plasma Rifle... nope. Doesn't work.), transcend class boundaries (though dual-classing and prestige classes make some small progress towards the problems) or express individual strengths and weaknesses inside of a class (all level 5 Fighters have the same Base Attack Bonus). Thus, character development becomes focused much more on the stuff a character has. If you can't make the character unique, give them unique gear. That's why I respect those DMs that try to break the mold, but ultimately prefer such things as Skill20 and M&M, though I would like to try GURPS, et. al.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I agree- systems have their strengths and weaknesses, but if I want to avoid a certian cliche, then sometimes I must avoid the system that generated it.

(PS: Wonderful icon... just friggin' wonderful. This is the first "wow, what an icon" comment I've made on LJ, and I intend for it to be the last.)

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 04:35 pm (UTC)

(The icon's cribbed from principiadiscordia.com - if they object to its use, they really need to choose a different hobby. ;) )

Wed, Dec. 7th, 2005 03:15 am (UTC)

Indeed...I've read the core rulebooks for D&D and Ironclaw...the former is, as its name implies, VERY centered around dungeon-crawls and combat and getting characters more powerful. Ironclaw, on the other paw, has literally dozens of character classes ("professions") that are totally non-combat. And some combat-oriented ones, too. And all you have to do to multiclass is add another trait die by spending the appropriate points.

Hell, if I remember correctly, it's possible to start the game legitimately with three professions.

Wed, Dec. 7th, 2005 03:40 am (UTC)

That actually makes Ironclaw somewhat attractive. To be honest, it is the first I've heard ot it!

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 03:12 pm (UTC)

Also, I'm always determined to read "Theta Kogun" as "The Tako Gun," which implies some sort of device for launching fresh octopus at high speeds.

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 08:56 pm (UTC)

Wha-ha-ha-ha! Do you have any idea how much he gets that? XD

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 09:10 pm (UTC)

More than ten times a day, I bet.

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 09:09 pm (UTC)

That's how I've always read it :-x

Tue, Dec. 6th, 2005 09:11 pm (UTC)

Same here.

Wed, Dec. 7th, 2005 03:09 am (UTC)


Wed, Dec. 7th, 2005 03:39 am (UTC)

We've established that, oh foxy one. X3

Fri, Jan. 27th, 2006 11:39 pm (UTC)

Hmm...fifthed? sixethd? eighty-sixed?