Monday, September 24, 2012

Getting the Setting Right: RPG Blog Carnival

This month’s Blog Carnival looks at gaming in established settings and is hosted by the excellent Dice Monkey blog. That covers a lot of ground- from licensed properties (Star Trek, Firefly, DC Comics) to game company created lines which have developed a life of their own (Deadlands, Pathfinder’s Golarion, World of Darkness). There’s an interesting mirror created in these two approaches. On the one hand, veteran game settings which branch into other mediums have to figure out how to stay true to their mechanical roots while crafting a compelling fiction. Or they have to give up entirely and throw the rules and premises of the original game out in favor of story or pseudo-story (see the Legend of the Five Rings novels for varied responses to this challenge). On the other hand, licensed products have to figure out a way to mechanize the elements of a setting. They have to manage to make that playable and interesting, while at the same time capturing something of the feeling of the original. Does that work? Or does applying a game framework bleed out what makes a story work?

In 1984 I went to the opening night of Ghostbusters. I couldn’t get anyone else to go with me, so I went alone. I still loved it. At the time it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen, and I went another half dozen times before it left town. As a diehard role-player, my immediate response was to try to figure out how to run a game like that. Of course I went to the two horror games I knew- Call of Cthulhu and Stalking the Night Fantastic. From those I crafted an unholy hodge-podge with a dozen characteristics, a hundred skills, and a bizarre weapon chart. I ran it once- barely making it through the complexity that I’d carefully crafted.

Two years later WEG came out with the Ghostbusters rpg. I picked it up and was a little lost. Where were the stats and details, where were the rules for detailed ghost entrapment, how could you have the players define their own skills? Just a few d6- that could never possibly work. But, of course, it did. It not only ran smoothly, but the game lent itself to the setting it was trying to emulate. Some of that came from the goofiness of free choices for the players. Some of that came from changing the stakes of conflicts- less life & death- and more simple success and triumph. Most of it came from the game getting out of the way of the players and offering them permission to play out the funny. Ghostbusters was both the first real rule-light/storytelling game I played and the game which showed me that game systems mattered- and they could be tuned to emulate a setting.

I’ve been listening to Ken Hite and Robin Laws’ podcast, Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff. A while back, Robin made an argument that Call of Cthulhu was the first rpg to really attempt to emulate a literary style- Lovecraft’s particular take on the horror genre. That stuck with me and made me put together my history of horror rpgs. In a more recent podcast, Ken Hite declared once again his love for Call of Cthulhu as the greatest rpg of all time. He made a point that hadn’t really occurred to me. CoC, as opposed to most rpgs, isn’t about personal empowerment and success. Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t win and progress. They’re destroyed- win, lose, or draw. Hite cited several details of the system which help emulate that. The apparent capriciousness of the percentile roll helps simulate the fickle nature of the universe. You don’t get to add anything, you just desperately hope that the dice will roll under your skill (along with any modifier the Keeper applies). Also requiring players buy separate combat skills for just about everything- punch, kick, pistol, rifle, fireplace poker- constrains the players. Making a ‘combat monster’ is both against the spirit of the genre and incredibly difficult in the game. Consider as well the incremental and tiny nature of advancement in CoC.

But I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of Call of Cthulhu players don’t play the rules as straight as they could. These Keepers offer small mercies, pull back on the sanity rules, and allow the PCs to be more effective than they ought to be. Hence the split in Trail of Cthulhu between “Purist” and “Pulp” approaches. The former sticks to the letter of the rules and aims to emulate the deadly and inevitable feeling of a Lovecraft story. The latter puts Tommy Guns, dynamite, and grimoires into the players’ hands. They have two righteous fists against the darkness. That’s not a bad direction, but it means the setting isn’t exactly Lovecraftian anymore. Instead it emulates the Mythos as presented by many of Lovecraft’s pulp successors- Lumley and Tierney for example. A solid table will have some kind of agreement about which genre they’re emulating.

Consider the difficulties inherent in two of the most important licensed setting: Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Both of these face the traditional problems of playing in an established setting: relative knowledge and story inevitability. But both offer accessible and easy entry points- and GMs can narrow things down to a clear set of sources. In contrast consider Forgotten Realms or A Game of Thrones, with dense required backstories and multiple sources that make it difficult to boil down to a couple of key texts. As well they’re generally known by most groups. But both present the same challenge: magic. In particular Wizards & Jedi.

I really enjoyed Middle Earth Role-Playing. It was the crazy younger brother to Rolemaster which I was heavily into at the time. With streamlined tables that still offered complexity, it seemed like a great compromise. Most of the modules were excellent and well-crafted (after you got past some of the insane early ones like Ardor). However, for many, MERP has a basic flaw- the ability to play many types of magic users- Animists, Bards, Magicians, and Rangers. Mages in MERP could look like classic D&D wizards- with access to fireballs and lightning bolts. Given the small number of classes, many of the NPCs then possessed magic. If the GM ran the world strictly as given in the MERP supplements, then Middle-Earth was a fairly high magic setting. Decipher’s The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game also had magic using classes, but much more reduced.

The problem is that as presented in the LotR trilogy, magic is rare and potent. So these games don’t simulate that. They could- and I’m not sure how The One Ring rpg handles this. The problem is that some players like to run magic users. Game designers recognize this and have to strike a balance- as does each GM. They have to figure out how much they aim for emulating the setting, invoking the atmosphere, and how much they want to give the players access to the cool. Could/should you run a Middle-Earth game where none of the players can cast magic? I’m sure you could and it would reflect the series, but I think you lose some opportunities for fun.

The opposite problem comes in the Star Wars setting. Everyone accepts that we have to have Jedi as an accessible player-class. But how do you balance that with the other PC types? How do you make other classes as interesting, as cool, and as powerful as the other PCs? I’m not saying that there must be game balance- but drastic game imbalance is worse. No one wants to be the sidekick- unless you’re playing Ars Magica or Dr. Who. The problem is that several games have deliberately hobbled the Jedi in favor of that balance. That approach might make the table general feel equitable, but the Jedi player who has something quite cool in their mind will find themselves frustrated. Or you could take the option OF THE original Star Wars MMORPG- no one starts as a Jedi until they’ve gone through many different learning experiences (until they nerfed the game with the “Jedi for Everyone” build). Both of these approaches favor the mechanics over emulation.

When I ran a homebrew Star Wars game, I tried to figure out a happy medium between these approaches. I let a couple of people be Jedi- and have access to a couple of power tracks. They could only overlap a little, making each unique. Other players had roles which gave them access to their own powers. They could pick from those or the general advantages. The point and pick based nature of the game created the illusion of balance. More importantly the game was a short mini-campaign, aimed at emulating a story about the length of a movie. Because of that player imbalance never reared its head, because we didn’t play long enough. Setting emulation through starvation, as it were.

Next time on this topic: hypocrisy, generic systems, multiple protagonists, and video games as rpgs. 


  1. The One Ring doesn't have overt spellcasting, but certain characters can get special unnatural abilities as they gain experience. Beornings can't turn into bears, for example, but they can go abroad while asleep in a bear-like spirit form. Dwarves can place a rune on an object to render it unseen -- but not invisible -- to others.

    1. That's interesting and certainly an approach I expect most purists approve of. I'm not sure how I'd handle that if I ran a ME game. I guess I'd asked the players which direction they wanted to go in.

  2. Ghostbusters is such a great game--1st edition, anyway, before they tried to appease the D&D crowd.

    WEG Star Wars 1st edition was great, too. Never had any problems with Jedi. The problem is GMs allowing PCs to learn Jedi tricks willy-nilly in direct contradiction to the source material in which Jedi are special and rare. Setting your game in the right era erases the problem if the GM is any good.