What Are We Playing Again?

Over at How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less is a post questioning whether system matters. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I have been thinking about the kinds of games I enjoy running. I realize that some of the reason I may be somewhat burned out on GM’ing lately has less to do with a loss of desire to run games and more with the fact that I haven’t been running the kinds of games I actually enjoy running.

Part of this is system related. I don’t want to pick on poor, beleaguered 4th Edition D&D any more, but its a perfect example of what I’ve been doing to myself. It is a very closed circuit type of system, balance-obsessed, strict, and very rules-heavy. This frustrates the heck out of me running a game. I take longer to prepare for a 4E game than any system I’ve ever run before — and for an actual gameplan that is far less complex than many campaigns I’ve run. It is an odd and sometimes infuriating process that has contributed to my growing overall disappointment with 4E. In this case, system matters…

Strangely, if you go to the “indie” side of things, I have to bring up Houses of the Blooded. I’ve always enjoyed the games John Wick writes — to a point — and I find that I very rarely play them for long. 7th Sea is a great example of this. I was very inspired by the world of the game, by the books themselves — my players had all kinds of character ideas — and then we started to play. We quickly learned that the mechanical representation the game creates does not reflect the reality of the game world the way we imagined it — and that we overall disliked the mechanics of the game period — so 7th Sea lasted about 4 months and we’ve never played again. But I was talking about HotB… See, I liked 7th Sea, but I fell in hot, girly, Twilight-readin’, emo LOVE with Houses of the Blooded. I wanted to have its babies. And then I actually started using the game — and the mechanics made me want to kill myself. The mechanics sucked the fun right out of the damn game. So again, system mattered.

One game that I love, play a lot and enjoy 98% of the mechanics of, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd Edition, is a great game, with simple rules that can be applied in complex ways, just enough crunch to let players and GM sink their teeth in, but not so much as to get in the way while playing. I’m a big fan. I’ve run short adventures and long campaigns using the system and always been happy. I even converted it away from the original WH world to play in a home-brew setting. The only difficulty I had was that the magic system is so intimately tied to the WH fluff, it feels a little awkward when used for anything else. A minor quibble, but distracting enough that I’m still looking for something else… But I’d say it’s top three of my favorite systems of all time and I curse Fantasy Flight every day for ending the line and bringing out that horror of a game used to replace it. You might remember my less than friendly review of WHF3E.

The other two games I’d put at the top of that list… Amber Diceless. This is a game that always makes me smile… the system is so simple, so elegant, it works perfectly — but it suffers from being so great. It’s perfect — for Amber. I can’t imagine (and I’ve tried, really, really tried) running anything else on this framework. The system works because you are an immortal demigod with control over infinite Shadow… The auction mechanism, and Good Stuff/Bad Stuff are fantastically inventive, but again, very Amber-specific. It’s a little sad really, because the game has been the most fun I’ve ever had as a player and a GM. The other game I’d put on that top three list… the old Marvel Saga Adventures Superhero game. You play it with cards instead of dice, it’s mechanics are simple to the point of being nearly not-enough-to-play, but once you get the flow of the system down it’s a great ride.

The point is… for me, system matters. I tinker with games, I tinker with setting and mechanics and everything else, but if the core of the engine the game rests on doesn’t cut it for me, I’ll probably be gone and not look back. Of course, many games fall in the middle — I like them well enough to play from time to time, but they aren’t what I run to when I want to run a game. GURPS and Mutants and Masterminds fall into this category. They’re both fun, and the game engines are pretty strong. I can play and run them short-term, but they never seem to work for me in the long run.

Odyssey brings up two other questions in the post I linked above… asking if the reader thinks a perfect system exists and whether system matters as much as having the right group of players. My simple answers — I don’t think a perfect system exists yet — after all, why do so many of us keep working on writing our own games, right? As for having the right group of players… Well, I’d play any game in the universe with the gaming group I had once upon a time (that time being around 95-98). They were an amazing bunch. I’d play Powers and Perils with that group I loved them so much and we fit so well together. I can’t stress enough how important the right group is. For me, finding a solid group of players interested in the same kind of gaming I am has become something akin to tilting at windmills.

And what kind of game do I want to run right now? That’s tough to describe easily, but I’d say if you imagined the Arabian Nights written by Robert E. Howard set on a world designed by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance with the intrigue of three years worth of soap operas thrown in for good measure, well, that’s about what I wish I was running right now.

So, what’s your take on system and groups? And what do you wish you were running right now?

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5 responses

  1. 4E does take a lot of prep work, but for me, I make combat too easy. 4E makes combat challenging and balanced.

    But I’ll take a look at WH to see how it works. It may be better, but again, my problem is coming up with balanced and challenging encounters.

    But honestly, I think that it is the group that makes the difference more than the system. With the right group a bad system will work. With the wrong group a good system will fail.

  2. In my opinion, the group matters more than the system. Finding players is easy; finding players who don’t edge you closer to suicide is much harder. I’ve only been GMing for 7-8 years, but in that time I’ve found three players I actually want to play with, maybe 10 who are good at filling spaces and not wrecking the game, and a couple dozen who are bad for the game, but not bad enough to throw out.

    Even the crappiest system has some use (I’ve run old Palladium Robotech, on purpose) if only to parody itself. You can get players together under the pretense of “Let’s play this crap and laugh about how we couldn’t see the Royal Command Battleoid because the system doesn’t have a perception mechanic.”

    As for what I wish I was running… I honestly don’t care. Maybe some more Dark Heresy, or 3.5 Planescape. I’d like to get some better players, because right now every game feels the same.

  3. I certainly agree with you guys about finding the right players. Some games though, in my opinion, suffer from the system/mechanics — to the point that you’d never take them seriously — as per Paul’s Robotech example. I’ve played some Palladium too. I feel that pain.

    But I’m certainly on board about the player issue. I’m not certain I’d go so far as to say that many of the people I’ve played with in recent years are “bad for the game” but I miss the depth and thought that some of the old players I had would really put into the game. I feel that’s what’s lacking. But that’s fodder for other posts…

  4. I’d say if you imagined the Arabian Nights written by Robert E. Howard set on a world designed by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance with the intrigue of three years worth of soap operas thrown in for good measure, well, that’s about what I wish I was running right now.

    I haven’t read much Vance yet so I can’t say for sure, but… I’m kinda in that game right now. Kinda. Swords & Sorcery + Soap Opera = 😀

    Totally with you on those overcomplicated systems sucking the will-to-DM right out of ya. Yeah, players matter, probably more than system, and a good enough group can make just about anything fun, but… particularly for long term play, the really golden players are the ones who will play what you want to run.

    (And another on-again, off-again, want-to-love-it-but-can’t-run-it GURPS fan? Man. We have got to start a club or something.)

  5. A club? I’m in… (I admit it, I’m a joiner…)

    Seriously though, It’s nice to hear that I’m not alone in wanting a little soap opera in my gaming. It’s been, well, a while since I was in a game with real intrigue and any kind of deep role play.

    PS — for anyone who hasn’t gotten to Jack Vance yet, I highly recommend him.

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