Friday, August 12, 2011

Inside the Oddysey/Trollsmyth Hall of Secrets

[[Other people have said stuff like this before, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Especially the bit at the beginning. Also, this started as a conversation about poodles.]]

Oddysey: I'm finally starting to learn my own DMing style, and it really does work better if I know what I want going into the game.
Trollsmyth: YES!!!!1!!eleven!! :D
Oddysey: Jeez... you'd think it wouldn't take me a decade to figure that out...
Trollsmyth: Pfft. I didn't figure it out until 2000, honestly. And I'd been playing since '82, so that's what, 18 years?!? ;D
Well, ok, that's not entirely true. I couldn't articulate it until 2000.
Oddysey: Yeah. Because as DMs, our instinct is to be responsive to the players. That has to be what draws us to DMing.
Trollsmyth: Yep.
Oddysey: But responsiveness, while a requirement for good DMing, can't be the foundational quality for a game.
I mean, my better games have always been marked by the fact that I was bringing so much to the game -- more than made it to the table.
Trollsmyth: Yep, absolutely.
Oddysey: It's not just a matter of "run what you want to run," though.
I mean, for me, I have to have a clear idea of what the game is going to look like before I run it.
I can't be fumbling around in the dark.
Does that make sense?
I don't mean railroading or "writing" the game.
Trollsmyth: No, it makes perfect sense.
There are a hell of a lot of assumptions that go into running a game. And not all are always the same from game to game, even with the same group running the same system.
Oddysey: In a lot of ways I think system is really the least important part of it.
Trollsmyth: Yep. It helps, but...'
I mean, how often does system show up in the Henet game these days? ;)
Oddysey: Yeah.
And like Zak has said, he's played a bunch of different games now with a bunch of different people and there's just as much differentiation between the games run by different people using the same system as there is between different systems.
He's said he doesn't really notice the system much. [[note: I can't find where he said this now, otherwise I'd have linked to it]]
I think probably style of system might make a difference but I don't know that -- especially for a one-shot -- there'd be much noticeable difference between 3.5 D&D and GURPS fantasy.
And none between GURPS and M&M.
Trollsmyth: Nope. And honestly, from 30k feet, there's not a lot of difference between those two.
Oddysey: GURPS would be better for a game where you did a lot of body-switching.
Trollsmyth: Ooo, yeah, it would.
Oddysey: One of the nice things about 4e GURPS is that it's very clear about which attributes go with you and which don't.
And in that case, personality mechanics might actually be good -- it'd give you some handholds to grab.
Trollsmyth: Huh... I hadn't noticed that about 4e.
Oddysey: There's a discussion of it in the body-switching power, I think.
I mean, basically, it's everything that's marked mental goes, physical stays, and social depends on exactly how the switch happens and whether people know about it.
But yeah. Anyway.
Outside of specific edge cases like that, it's better just to use the system that you're comfortable with.
And I don't know, when you get right down to it, how much difference there is between 0e and GURPS besides ease-of-use.
On a campaign level, that's another matter.
Trollsmyth: From 30k feet, there's not much. Even Dogs in the Vineyard shares a lot in common with those, when compared to a game like Amber diceless.
Oddysey: Yeah. Dogs is just crazy-deadly and puts deadliness entirely under the player's control.
Trollsmyth: Yep.
Oddysey: I really feel like us futzing around with system is a distraction from the real issues/decisions involved in finding "the perfect game."
Trollsmyth: Oh?
Oddysey: Not [[just]] us, specifically, but most serious RPG people. We spend a lot of time reading systems and talking about systems and choosing between systems and trying to find the "right" system for a game.
And I think that's a distraction from the real work that needs to be done to figure out what you want a game to be and how to get from here to there.
Trollsmyth: YES!
Oddysey: I mean, okay, to a certain degree, the system is important.
You really can't get the Amber experience from any other game.
Likewise, something like Burning Wheel (or D&D 4e) that has a lot of metagame pieces is going to give you a really different experience from something where it's easier to shove that stuff into the background.
But if you're deciding between two systems that are really just random number generators that you ignore when you get a better idea...

13 comments:

  1. Interesting. I guess I've been misunderstanding Trollsmyth when he writes about system and how system should be designed around what you want a game to do. Or maybe I should say that I just thought he was meaning that more strongly and in the extreme than he actually does.

    Kind of "system doesn't really matter that much, but if you're going to go to the trouble to design a new system for the way you want to run a game, you might as well make the system conducive to the way you want to run a game," instead of "if you want to run a game in this way, you really should have a system that is built to help you run a game this way."

    Anyway, I wonder if you could talk a bit more about your DMing style and what you mean by having a clear idea of what a game is going to look like? That would probably help me to understand a bit more concretely what I think I'm basically understanding abstractly.

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  2. Gonna second the request from Staples.

    Also: hey, Staples is alive.

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  3. So far, Blixa the thief has failed to move silently by rolling too low on d100 in WFRP, by rolling too high on a d100 in S&W and rolling too high on a d6 in original D&D. Apparently system doesn't matter.

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  4. Staples: Sorta, yeah, though again, once you get outside the field of "roll dice, compare to target number" you can heavily influence the feel of things at the table. Too often, when we talk about "system" most folks mean roll under vs. roll over, rather than the full breadth of what that could possibly entail. In a one-shot dungeon-delve, it's hard to see the differences between B/X, Pathfinder, and GURPS, but that sort of gaming isn't the only option. Hence referencing Amber Diceless.

    But that's a bit beside the point here. Rather, what we're discussing is that when you and your friends talk about starting a new campaign, picking the system ought to be among the last things you discuss.

    Or, to put it another way, system cannot by itself create the game experience. Just because we're playing 4e D&D, for instance, doesn't necessarily mean we'll be spending a lot of time considering intricate tactical puzzles and working synergies between our characters' daily powers. The Henet game I mention officially uses Labyrinth Lord rules, but is primarily about interpersonal relationships. The most important thing LL does for us is stay out of the way most games. ;)

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  5. "Or, to put it another way, system cannot by itself create the game experience."

    That's very helpful, and helps me to understand Oddysey's post a bit better, I think, on a second reading. Thanks.

    "when you and your friends talk about starting a new campaign, picking the system ought to be among the last things you discuss."

    Wow. That's radical and different, but it also makes a lot of sense, given what you and Oddysey have already said.

    So, for example, to work things out on a concrete level, I have this idea on my back burner of running a campaign in Narnia. Because I was thinking that "system matters" is one of the first things to deal when planning a new campaign, I figured that Narnia has a feel a lot more like Pendragon than D&D (temptations and internal struggles, grand feel, etc.) so I decided that I would use Pendragon.

    It makes sense, though, that running Narnia with Pendragon won't guarantee a game that "feels" like Narnia if my players and I aren't all on the same page about how we're going to play this game and what Narnia is "about." We should talk about Narnia, re-read the CoN and come to a pretty good consensus concerning how we are going to play. After that, we can go shopping for a system that is conducive to how we've already agreed to play, but if we don't find a system that fits hand-in-glove with what we've discussed, that isn't a huge deal because we've already decided how we're going to play; system is only complimentary to what we've already decided.

    So, I guess I've got a few more questions:

    Am I, so far as you can tell, understanding you and Oddysey correctly in how I've rephrased what you've said?

    What did you and Oddysey (and any other players involved) talk about between deciding that you wanted to have a new campaign and deciding to use LL for your Henet game? (Also, is Henet a new name for Doom and Teaparties, or is LL just a good system for social games that need system to mostly stay out of the way? ;) )

    Finally, if either Trollsmyth or Oddysey have the time and interest, how would you go about starting a campaign set in Narnia? I guess a lot of this would depend on the players you would be talking to, but what kind of issues would start out by addressing with them?

    Or, alternately, is there a set of questions that are more specific than "what kind of campaign do we want to run next?" that are helpful when starting out a new campaign?

    Thanks!

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  6. Staples: I'll do my best to answer your questions, but I'm also sure Oddysey will want to chime in with her own opinions on some of this, and I'll be shocked if there's across-the-board agreement between the two of us. ;)

    Am I, so far as you can tell, understanding you and Oddysey correctly in how I've rephrased what you've said?

    I think so, yep.

    What did you and Oddysey (and any other players involved) talk about between deciding that you wanted to have a new campaign and deciding to use LL for your Henet game? (Also, is Henet a new name for Doom and Teaparties, or is LL just a good system for social games that need system to mostly stay out of the way? ;) )

    Whew! Ok, this is going to be long, and I'll start by answering in near-reverse order.

    There are actually two Doom & Tea Parties games going on right now, both ostensibly happening in the same campaign world. There's a group game that meets once-a-week, and then there's a solo game with Oddysey's character that's roughly weekly as well. Her character in that game is currently going by the name Henet (her original name is Rukmini) so yes, when I said "Henet" I meant the solo Doom & Tea Parties game.

    As for how the game got started, we didn't do anything like what I suggested above! ;D I started working on Doom & Tea Parties after a prolonged bout of disenchantment with fantasy RPGs. I'd mostly been playing 2e, and had fallen out of love with 3.x. I tinkered with original systems and True20 to make something that worked better for me, and wasn't having much luck.

    At about this time, Maliszewski (Grognardia) started talking about going back to the original system and, taking it on its own terms, see what made it work so well. My original system was Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert, and I happened to have them on my bookshelf. Re-reading them lead to all sorts of fun revelations and those inspired Shields Shall be Splintered and the Table of Death & Dismemberment. I then started putting together the Doom & Tea Parties game in order to poke more at this old-school stuff, because theory is nice but nothing beats actual play.

    While gathering players together, I talked Oddysey into joining by pointing out that my campaigns ran long-term, and she'd recently been complaining that she'd never done that before, and that she was intrigued by this old-school thing. (Note that our desires where not an exact match, but they were compatible. More on that later.) Over the next few months, she was the only player who was regular, and when I ended up adding new players to the game we decided that we'd let Rukmini spin off into a solo.

    And the game did not stay what it had been originally. As Oddysey has discussed in the past, the game shifted its focus towards relationships and social maneuvering. We were both cool with this, and encouraged the shift. I love verisimilitude in my games and Oddysey loves the interpersonal stuff between characters with believable (if sometimes fantastical) motivations and emotions. Our goals are still not identical but are very compatible. So it's win-win, especially since LL managed the transition with only a few minor hiccups.

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  7. Finally, if either Trollsmyth or Oddysey have the time and interest, how would you go about starting a campaign set in Narnia? I guess a lot of this would depend on the players you would be talking to, but what kind of issues would start out by addressing with them?

    Ok, here's where you might see a big divergence between the way Oddysey and I do things. I'm very much a 30,000 feet, top-down sort of GM and she prefers to start with something a lot more intimate and character-focused.

    So I'd start with the big questions: why Narnia and what makes Narnia Narnia for you? If it's just knights and centaurs and witches and talking beavers, that'll imply a different focus than if the answer is the challenge of virtue, the temptation of vice, and the necessity of redemption. (And keep in mind that those two answers are not necessarily incompatible.)

    Once you know what's important to you and your players, you can then start to look at systems that will give you what you want, or at least stay out of your way. You can add house rules that reinforce what you want, and avoid those that will cause trouble.

    My own personal preference is for tools that help me fill in the margins (so some random tables and supplements for inspiration) while addressing the group's interests obliquely. If I wanted a Narnia game about sin and redemption, I would not include a "sin" score or roll dice to see if my character resisted temptation. So I like to start with something fairly bare-bones (like LL) and build on top of that as needed. But this style of play is heavily dependent on mutual trust between the players and GM.

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  8. Agreed, the system should either support the game style or get out of its way. If it does not do one of these two things, find another system for your campaign.

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  9. One thing that's maybe confusing the issue is that my own ideas on this topic are really different from where they were a year ago, so the conversations that informed the Trollsmyth posts in question are not ones I would have had today.

    And my thoughts on this subject aren't really even what they were a few hours ago, seeing as now I'm wondering if "talking about the system" isn't some Taoist thing that keeps people from uselessly obsessing over the important bit and just go with it.

    Anyway, I wonder if you could talk a bit more about your DMing style and what you mean by having a clear idea of what a game is going to look like?

    This question deserves a post.

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  10. I think I worry about system less from a 'which is best and how they work' perspective and more from a 'who at this table is invested in what way of doing things' one.

    F'r instance, there's one dude at my table who likes things clean and simple and as similar to AD&D as physically possible, a couple of drama geeks who don't like breaking their immersion with maths, and three lads who cut their teeth on 3.X and Pathfinder and who like absolute control over Their Character. And then there's me, the arch-reductionist who thinks most RPG rulebooks are ten times as detailed and four times as long as they need to be and cut his teeth on Warhammer Fantasy Role Play's cold hard randomisation of everything under the sun.

    We tend to have a lot of discussions about systems and styles and preferences just so we can find something that'll work for everyone, or at least establish how to break the group down so that nobody's stuck in a game they hate.

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  11. Damn, I forgot the "why this was at all relevant as a comment on somebody else's blog" paragraph. Here goes: 'you' is general rather than specific throughout.

    Style is probably more important than system, up to a point, although people who've played one system fairly intensively and extensively are going to be very much invested in how that system constructs roleplaying. If systems are suited to particular styles, it follows that playing one system more or less exclusively is going to form your style in a particular way. Likewise, if you've had a 'bad' (read 'unsuitable for my style') game under a system and not a 'good' (contrariwise) one, you may end up with a misperception that the style of that system is wrong for you, having not seen how it can be adapted for you.

    As a result, [insert previous interruption of others' conversation with apropos-of-nothing remarks about my experiences here].

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  12. I agree. Although it's also important for the GM to be comfortable with the system, which is maybe why so many GMs devote so much time to fine-tuning their systems so it reflects their internal image of how things should be.

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  13. F'r instance, there's one dude at my table who likes things clean and simple and as similar to AD&D as physically possible, a couple of drama geeks who don't like breaking their immersion with maths, and three lads who cut their teeth on 3.X and Pathfinder and who like absolute control over Their Character. And then there's me, the arch-reductionist who thinks most RPG rulebooks are ten times as detailed and four times as long as they need to be and cut his teeth on Warhammer Fantasy Role Play's cold hard randomisation of everything under the sun.

    I like this as a way of thinking about system: a comfortable and useful way of presenting information about the game, and a fun thing to interact with in itself. "Comfortable," "useful," and "fun," all varying by player and their goals at the moment.

    Also, today's post has some relevance to the topic at hand.

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