Sunday, October 11, 2009

RPG Writers I Like: Robin Laws

Well, I've been pretty focused for the last several posts, so time to do one which is more rambling and unfocused. Think of it as a first draft of some ideas. That plus I'm on day four of feeling crappy and having to cancel games. But anyway, below are the start of some more gaming thoughts--

RPG Writers I Like: Robin Laws

I have a few game writers with names I recognize and follow. So much of what I have and play I honestly couldn't tell you who wrote it. But if I see Ken Hite, Greg Stafford, Greg Stolze, or John Wick's names mentioned in connection with a game, I'll at least go and take a look at it. Probably top of that list is actually Robin Laws, as you might guess from the reviews I've been writing this week. Laws wrote my favorite Over the Edge supplement Weather the Cuckoo Likes a guidebook to surrealist anarchists in that setting. He wrote some other supplements for OTE I enjoyed and helped revise the second edition of the core book for the game. He's written for a number of other games I enjoyed-- wrote the Parlainth supplement for Earthdawn which was one of the few books for that line I bought (and used). And of course he wrote Gumshoe, the Esoterorists, Fear Itself, the Dying Earth rpg, Players Guide to Kaiin, and HeroQuest which I just got done writing about.

So yeah, I like what he does-- and I know in just about anything that he writes I'll find something interesting to read. And I think he's pretty important for rpgs today.

For one thing I think we can point to one of Robin laws' games as significant change in rpg thinking: Feng Shui. I'd argue that game helped usher in changes in thinking about ways games are played. To make that argument, I have to kind of set up some things rpg history-wise. Rules are rules and rpg gaming came out of miniature gaming- which in itself is another form of board gaming. Rules cover circumstances which can be generally objectively resolved at the table. The history of early games really is about the creation of more and deeper systems, at the same time as new worlds and new settings were also being more deeply created. So richer story backgrounds and richer rules. We have Dungeons & Dragons getting more and more options, and then creating lots and lots of settings. We have companies like Fantasy Games Unlimited creating varying kinds of heavy detail rpgs. We have Chaosium adapting and readapting the Basic Role-Playing with lots of different kinds of elements. GURPS arrives and seems lighter despite being heavily mechanical. HERO System begins to spin in a dozen different directions. Rolemaster arrives bloated and gets fatter with each passing supplement. Others revel in their mechanical elaboration like Living Steel, Rifts and so on.

Fairly rarely we have a few games come out with a much lighter approach to games. Ghostbusters goes for rules-light and focuses on trying to capture the pleasure of the setting. Toon does something of the same. TWERPS shows up as a blip on the radar for a moment. The interesting thing about all of these is that they are, by and large, less serious games. They can afford to be lighter. There's a sense that the light rules are being tried in an attempt to perhaps be more accessible and to get mechanics out of the way for the story. We can point to a couple of other games that seemed to want to be rules light but ended up burying themselves in mechanics, James Bond and Paranoia for example. They want fun, but in the end they can't quite break away from elaborate skill tree or percentile multiplication tables.

So we hit the mid-1990s, and I'd say our two big camps for gaming are pretty much AD&D and White Wolf. Sure some people have spun off to Hero System, but they're an older group. And Palladium's Rifts and the like appeals to a certain kind of player who finds AD&D not darker or “gunny” enough and White Wolf too far away from their level. But at the same time WW's WoD has started to talk about drama in the narrative and focusing on stories over mechanics. It says that while at the same time continuing to put out books with more mechanics and system stuff. There's a certain hypocrisy there. At the same time CCG money has begun to fuel some interesting experiments that try to do something new-- like Everway for example.

But I think Feng Shui's the first major and ongoing game that really talked about the dramatic imperative in combat and action. The game itself is trying to model kung-fu action films. And to that end the game is simple, though at first glance it looks like it has a lot of chrome. Feng Shui sells a simple idea: if a player describes what they're doing in a cool way they should be rewarded for that. If they want a bonus effect, they can universally make a stunt test to add that effect on. Those rules occupy about a page and a half of the game book. But they're really important. If you look at various magazines around that time you can see Laws proselytize for more interesting, more exciting, and less mechanical combats in a number of articles (Pyramid and The Familiar for example). The rest of Feng Shui supports this notion-- I mean the gun table jokes about gamers' gun fetishism and the need for distinct mechanics. It provides gun silhouettes, but effectively most guns are about the same. The game recognizes the need for the illusion. Mind you, all of this is intended to simulate and echo the kinds of things that happen in a kung fu movie, but Laws knows and makes a case for the idea that combat in any game ought to be at least as interesting as that in those movies.

I don't think it any surprise that Exalted from White Wolf a few years later has mechanics for “Stunting” that echo those ideas. And that more games begin to take seriously the idea of making combat rich, exciting and visually interesting. We're a long way from the years when elaboration on actions trying to gain an effect seemed like trying to work outside the system. When I first started, I certainly had that sense of play-- in part because we didn't have a handle on the rules. It was more like a sandbox argument, I'm rubber and you're glue with dice to resolve it. Then as I got into system and understood rules, I'd say I became less and less open to “I want to do this...” things. Not necessarily shutting those ideas down, although I have to admit I did, but more washing past or ignoring them.

Part of the problem come from this: elaborate systems with mechanics have more selling room and marketability. A simple system doesn't need lots of supplemental products to introduce new rules, new character abilities, new chrome. Thinking about that, I was a little surprised that when White Wolf did come back with the reboot of nWoD they didn't move in the direction of a more narrative over mechanics approach. I mean the core rules seem simplified, but then when you actually get to the books for the various lines themselves you get extremely long and protected rules systems. GURPS in its new incarnation feels even clunkier and more mechanical, despite having eliminated some complexity. But the books feel inaccessible to me. Even their supposedly more flexible rules versions, like the options of GURPS Thaumatology involve lots of calculations and a strong emphasis on keeping everything in its own corral of balance. I won't even go onto d20 or the like.

Then there are systems that seem to have a split personality. Unisystem, for example, in both flavors, begins from a simple mechanic but then adds layers of crunch to it. When your strip those away you get a pretty basic and bland task resolution system, but one easily picked up. Cinematic Unisystem tried to capture the feel of Angel and Buffy and certainly the material they put together was pretty, but it felt remarkably arbitrary in terms of costs and effects. The thing that I like about Feng Shui, and generally most things Laws' has done is they feel like consistent and elegant solutions. Even when I don't like how they play out, I have to admire how well they hold together.

So, I've spun a little far off from my point. In brief: I think you can reasonably trace back a change in the way drama and narration happens to the concepts in Feng Shui.

I think what Robin Laws has been doing is interesting not in terms of theory, because I could give a rat's ass about theory, but in terms of how we play at the table. I'll go back to Gumshoe on this. Detective and investigation stories are great, but when progress rests on a die roll, they break down. That's a simple idea and I know some people have criticized it for being “obvious” or something they'd already integrated into their own games. What I think is revolutionary about the concept is that it makes that idea explicit, and brings it into the system, into the open-- it acknowledges a factor of play and establishes a certainty for both sides- players and GMs.

But beyond that, the Gumshoe system rewards players with skills-- if a person has purchased an ability, they can have their scene. One of the potential drawbacks to having a more narrative centered approach to games is that if you do have things like skill buys and abilities and things, you may be spending points on things you never get to use-- especially if things tend to get resolved through narrative transactions. That means that combat skills really become the place where you know if you've spent the points, you're actually going to get to make rolls based on those skills. The idea that we shouldn't have players make or rely on rolls unless those moments are dramatically important-- and I think that's a great development, but it also has consequences in that some skills can become a waste of time. No criticism to Will's Hunter game, as I enjoyed it greatly, but I bought skills there that I either never had the opportunity to use or used maybe once or twice. In those cases it only makes sense to buy powers, stats and combat skills. I do think there are some ways around that-- Gumshoe has one solution and the idea of Matrix arguments I talked about a while back is another.

There are other really crucial things that Gumshoe does, or more that it points out. The idea of clues that move the scene forward versus clues which put the pieces in place of the larger mystery versus clues which provide color or allow a player to shine. Honestly, Gumshoe's a game that requires a lot of prep-- if you're going to run a game you need to think about the clues and that means you need to know the solution. That keeps the GM honest. I suspect many of us have been in games where the GM stonewalls us when we move too fast, or where we know that the GM has changed the solution because they aren't happy with what's going on. I know I've seen players who've been trained in that mode-- and when they hit what looks like an investigation, they can't take it seriously because they think the GM's just throwing things together and will have a solution cobbled to fit the facts at the end. Gumshoe helps the GM figure those things out-- and shows what kind of structure works for those kinds of games.

And I'll come back to what Laws did with the Dying Earth rpg, which as I said, the group didn't care for. That game could have been about stats and details and the various beings of Vance's world, but instead he managed to really evoke the feeling of the setting through the system. I think in part players reactions, legitimate as they were, came at least a little from the accuracy of what being characters in that world would be like- subject to fate, requiring a quick and glib tongue and oddly detached. If there's a sin there, it is perhaps that projects the setting a little too well. When it comes down to it there are some drama narratives I wouldn't necessarily want to role-play immersively-- like say The Wire, The Shield, or Silent Hill.

Anyway, just some random thoughts on Robin Laws as a game writer.

Addendum #1: I forgot to mention one of the most important things I learned from Laws (maybe I should have done this as a list). Feng Shui really came up with and promoted the idea of "Mooks", agent NPCs as throwaway combatants. There'd been some rules for lightly defining minor opponents before this, but nothing as integrated and as explicit as these rules. Having Mooks allows you to fill the table with bad guys-- they're dangerous en masse, and can serve to shape the fight. But generally they're their to slow down and to give the players a chance to show off. They really heighten the drama and create an immense sense of satisfaction in the players who can break out the cool stuff to take them down. After Feng Shui, you started to see more rules encouraging this kind of thing (Mutants and Masterminds has either miss or KO'd for Mooks or Minions or whatever you call them).

OK, off to bake cookies to put in my little Robin Laws shrine.