I’m a behind on updates for Play on Target, the rpg podcast I co-host. That’s OK since we’re a little behind on episode releases. Or maybe OK isn’t the word (maybe par for the course…). Anyway in this July episode we considered games “Ahead of their Time.” In some cases they struck out so far ahead they died off. Yet later games would take up their trailblazing approaches. In the show each of us offers several games we’d put in these categories. We also talk about the challenges new systems pose to existing groups. If something’s radically different it can be hard to wrap your own head around, let alone sell to the table. Your perception may be colored by bad experiences, leading you to dismiss a game. I felt that way about PbtA until I played with GMs who actually showed off the cool parts of the system.
Below I’ve cobbled together a few additional thoughts on the topic.
1. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS BEHIND THE VEIL: I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of places, but it’s worth mentioning again. We’re 25 years out from the original release of Vampire the Masquerade. It showed up on the shelf just as I finished college. I worked at a game store at the time and it drew a little attention. A year later I returned from grad school to manage the store, and it had become the hot new thing. Over time Vampire and its sundry associated games changed the composition of local game groups and increased the number of customers. Over time our gaming population grew and splintered into several groups. I could usually tell when they came in the door if they were “Just Looking at Whatever,” D&D, WH40K/Battletech, World of Darkness, or Magic the Gathering customers.
2. YOUR TEAM SUCKS: In the ep we don’t talk about the backlash to new approaches. It parallels the edition wars which have plagued gaming. Enthusiasts for a particular game of style of game dismiss others. They take any form of criticism as an attack. Even advocacy for alternatives becomes an implicit condemnation. I saw this happen repeatedly in the store…and I joined in the absurd dogpiling: Champions players dismissing anyone who played baby Marvel Superheroes; old school rpg grognards versus the rising tide of World of Darkness; Cyberpunk 2020 versus Shadowrun; Anything else versus d20; tabletop gamers versus LARPers. I’ve been part of that, part of the group that said there’s no BadWrongFun, yet still shat in other people’s cornflakes. I tell myself I’ve gotten better, but I can still get snarky about games I don’t even play with 3+ page character sheets DESPITE THEIR EXISTENCE HAVING NO IMPACT ON MY ENJOYMENT OF MY GAMING.
3. MY TEAM RULEZ: On the other hand, I also remember the lone activists of the shop. Individuals who bought everything for a line and talked endlessly about how it was the end all of gaming. These weren’t D&D fans, but those pushing games that maybe sold a copy or two of anything each year. Over my lifetime, I have lost weeks to these advocates: pinning me behind the counter in conversation. They needed to convince me of the merits of their revolutionary game: Streetfighter, Dark Conspiracy, TORG, SLA Industries, Immortal the Invisible War. Some of them knew when the store would be slowest, so they could share their stories uninterrupted.
4. IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY: I mention this because I’m sure our selection of games on the podcast sent many eyes rolling: about half the time I discuss Fate or PbtA I get at least one person telling me how it didn’t work for them (best case) or it sucks & any games that sells out by using that system needs to be burned with fire (most other cases). I understand. I can think of several revolutionary and striking games which I don’t dig. Games doing immensely cool stuff, but not in my wheelhouse or just not clicking for me: Reign, Burning Wheel, Star Wars d6, Warhammer 3e, Houses of the Blooded. They’re good games and some people get awesome fun from them. The aforementioned pooping in someone’s cereal about something they dig doesn’t make sense.
5. HOW ABOUT SOMETHING CONCRETE: I have three game innovations I’d like to see again: mechanics reworked and used in new contexts. First, mini-games for things like Sorcery or Psionics. That’s one of my favorite Castle Falkenstein elements. To cast magic you have to have certain types of energy. Draws from a deck represent that via suit and rank. Characters have a limit on how much they can draw to build that up. There’s a push-your-luck aspect there. Do you use more actions to draw? Do you risk bad interactions via unattuned energies? Do you spend your own soul to supplement this? Second, flow-chart mini-games. Mutant City Blues does this a little with the Quade Diagram. I haven’t yet figured out how to bring that over to another game and make it useful. But more I’d like mechanics like the tech deciphering flowcharts from Gamma World. You’d need more active choices, but it could work. Third, institutional lifepaths for character creation. That’s one of my favorite elements from Cyberpunk, FASA’s Star Trek and especially classic Traveller. Uncharted Worlds feels a little like a PbtA love-letter to Traveller, but it backs away from a lifepath approach. That’s too bad. I like the randomness and, again, the push-your-luck element.
6. HOW ABOUT SOMETHING VAPORWARE: I also have a couple advancements I hope we’ll see in the future. First, a cool Legacy-style boardgame-rpg hybrid. We’ve seen more and more rpgs trying to cross into board game territory: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Mice & Mystics, Agents of SMERSH, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Mansions of Madness, and others. Some have a GM role and others automate that process. I’d like to see more of that, leaning towards the rpg side of things. But add to that an element of Legacy games. In those player choices and in-game events change the game itself. That happens in a tabletop rpg, and a bg/rpg could easily offer cool physical objects to track that. But it’d be awesome if things changed at the meta-level, with the rules expanding or changing as play evolved. I don’t know exactly what that’s mean; I’m spitballing. I’d also like to see more interest uses for rpg apps. The new edition of Mansions of Madness subs in the app for the Keeper role and Alchemists uses it to track hidden information. Imagine an app that generates tons of random and cascading details for a city. Or one that generates and manages puzzles for a dungeon. Or something that simulates hacking, giving that player a special mini-game with choices and immersion.
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