Rules Maketh Game

A roleplaying game lives or dies not just by its premise, but its production value, and more importantly, its mechanics. Production value is obvious–we all know everyone judges books by their covers… and DVDs, and plays, and musicians, and games as well. It’s not fair, but it is true. If you feel you have a good product, then you better make sure you dress it up like it’s prom night and you want to get lucky after the dance. You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.

But once they’ve bought that sizzle, there damn well better be a steak coming. Content matters, which includes the setting, characters, and all the little flaovor text details that help flesh out the game world.  However, the mechanics also go a long way to immersing a player, because they set the goal posts in terms of expectations and percieved realism.

For example, Call of Cthulhu, a 1920s horror game based on the works of HP Lovecraft, is extremely lethal to players. A single bullet can end you. And there’s no real way to get “tougher” in the game.  Rifts, a science fiction/fantasy game, has people get tougher and tougher as they go up in levels – to the point where small arms fire really isn’t a concern anymore.

In a way it’s no different than writing fiction. The job of the writer its to establish the levels of realism – is it a superheroic story where the laws of physics takes a vacation, or is it a gritty thriller where one false move can be your last?

But aside from what you could call “power levels” there is also the question of complexity. For some, the more math and charts, the better.  There is no greater thrill than to optimize your character to give them the best chance to beat the odds and win the day, and the more complexity there is, the more ways there is to find new and unexplored ways to tweak things to your advantage. For them, crunching numbers is as much a part of the game as actually playing it.

Part of me loves this element of RPGs. Exploring the rules is, in its own way, just as exciting as exploring the game world. Often times this leads to people creating house rules to expand upon this “crunch” or even creating their own roleplaying games, taking what they’ve learned from games past and perfecting it to their own vision.

But it’s also time consuming.  My last blog explained the biggest problem facing those who continue to roleplay after leaving school and entering the real world–time. Less time to play means, among other things, more time for the rules to drain out of your head, and more time spent freshening up before and during the next session.

Also, not all gamers appreciate “crunch” the same way.  Some are in it for the story first and foremost. They might appreciate the verisimilitude good rules can bring, but too many rules can drive them away, especially if it slows gameplay down.

And I can’t fault them on this. A book or movie can be too damn long because it insists on explaining or showing every single detail–it can work, and it can have a loyal audience, but for most the focus has to be on the story, not how much research you did or how great your sets look. It’s all about finding the right balance for your players (or readers, or viewers).

So after university I leaned heavily towards simpler roleplaying systems. West End Games used to have a great system that just used six sided dice.  Most famously this system was used for Star Wars, a game I played a lot of with my group in Victoria, and which I adapted to other genres.  R. Taslorian Games had a similarly simple system for Cyberpunk and Mekton Z, which focused on a ten sided die and modifiers.

Basic RolePlaying by Chaosium (who make Call of Cthulhu) has a very intriguing and customizable engine which is similarly simple. What I love about that system is all their skills are precentile based, which just feels right somehow. Having a skill level of 75% in something feels more tangible than saying you have a similar skill level of “7” or “3d6.”

But there is still a number cruncher lurking inside of me. He no longer has time to deal with games that require semester long course to master and regular play to maintain, but he does get a twinkle in his eye when something new and intriguing comes along.  Wondering “how does that work?” and “would my players use it?”

Usually the answer to the latter is “no,” but a game came out a few years ago that I initially ignored and dismissed, but has now grabbed my attention…

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