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#RPGaDay: Day 5 – Settings Without Systems or something I guess?

midgardDay 5’s topic (on the correct day, no less!) is ‘Most recent RPG purchase’. This is a bit of a tough one as I don’t actually remember the last physical RPG book I purchased. I’ve been on a bit of a buying-new-books fast because we’re running out of storage space! However, technically the most recent RPG I bought was the Bundle of Holding I purchased yesterday, which featured a bundle of Midgard books. Midgard, Wikipedia reliably informs me, was the first German roleplaying game, but Wikipedia also seems to think it’s never been released in English, which I hope is not true, as my German is not up to scratch. I suspect, by the look of it, that a new edition has been released as a Pathfinder campaign setting. But anyway, I don’t own Pathfinder, so I mainly bought it for the setting information.

I do that a lot, as do many roleplayers. Settings are often more enduring than mechanics, as the charmingly old-fashioned elements of a setting are rarely as head-poundingly frustrating in play as outdated mechanics (the exception is when settings include prejudiced elements that were considered acceptable at the time but are now recognised for what they are). Mechanics do go through trends and fashions, just like anything else. Currently, we’re in an era where story gaming is king. The Narrativist and Gamist camps are working together to make fairly rules-light systems that enable and enhance the story without getting in the way of it. Simulationism is pretty much out of the window.

But, hark, on the horizon! It is the Old School Revival: it’s Old School mechanics with modern sensibilities. Some people are playing 2nd Edition for nostalgia value, but games like Dungeon World have taken overblown systems and kept the nostalgia while taking out the frustration. It does, however, mean that many games look needlessly complicated now. Who knows how our story gaming mechanics are going to look in twenty years time? But then maybe everyone will be plugged into sensory-immersive headsets and all the game mechanics will be based on how quickly you can eat a ham sandwich without using your hands.

Oh my God, Midgard is so pretty!

Oh my God, Midgard is so pretty!

Setting, however, is enduring. You can make settings that are reflected in mechanics and mechanics that are reflected in settings, and you can make generic systems like FATE, True20, GURPs, etc. However, it is very rare that you can’t remove a setting from its mechanics and run it with something else. The enduring popularity of D&D settings like Ravenloft, Planescape, Dark Sun and Eberron shows that innovative and interesting settings win through across drastic system changes. Unhallowed Metropolis, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of the best settings I’ve read, but the system…eesh. The skill system is fine and the Degenerating mechanic is beautiful. Plus the injury tables are delicious. But when I ran it, I sat down and played out a combat with basic zombies and some characters (the first game I’d run, so I wanted to make sure I had a grasp on the mechanics) and had to basically hack the combat system so it didn’t take a ridiculous amount of time to play out a single combat. And then it was still so bad in the game itself that I mostly avoided combat altogether, because it was a constant standoff as neither side hit the other. For hours. Answer? Take the setting and run it in WoD. Seriously, that’s what one of my friends did and it was super fun. The system wasn’t getting in the way of the story any more. If you have a system like WoD or FATE that is easily adaptable, as well, you can add in a lot of the stuff you liked about the old system, that the setting would suffer from removing.

There is definitely an argument to be made for creating pick-up-and-play settings and adventures with fully statted monsters, but you can also write a setting without a system in mind. Sure, it’ll take a bit more work to run, but the short-lived gaming magazine Arcane was stuffed full of campaigns that had a suggested system but weren’t bound to it. Some of those systems have since become games with their own systems (I believe Puppetland first appeared in Arcane) but the idea of talking about gaming without talking about system seems alien and weird. And, of course, gaming has to have some kind of mechanics. That’s what makes it gaming rather than traditional oral storytelling or improvisational theatre, but with systems such as FATE that are designed so you can hack them to suit pretty much any setting with an absolute minimum of effort, inherently saying that one system is the best for running your standard fantasy RPG seems odd, especially with the huge variety of systems on offer now.

Seriously, so pretty.

Soooooooo preeeeeeeeetty

Midgard, by the sound of this review, is primarily focused on setting, as it originally had its own system but has been released to be compatible with Pathfinder. That’s…actually pretty much ideal for me. Who knows what system I’d run it in? There are some great fantasy systems to choose from. I was disappointed that the recent Blue Rose Kickstarter specified that it will be written to run with the Dragon Age system, but on the other hand, the system (while good) wasn’t the be all and end all of the game. Besides, I still have the original book and the True20 book, so I can run it in whatever the hell I like.

So, I guess this disorganised ramble comes down to the idea that there are some neglected ways of writing games and settings that could be explored more, and maybe should be. There are some games where mechanics and setting are integrated so much that it would be a shame to pull them apart, but those are in the minority. Usually an enterprising Gm can pick up the setting, hack in a few mechanics from the original system, and make something that is optimised for their playstyle and the story they want to tell, but what would be even cooler is if they didn’t need to surgically remove the system in the first place.

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#RPGaDay 2015: Day Three – So Many Games, So Little Time

fireflyDay Three’s topic is ‘Favourite new game of the last 12 months’. I’ve been really bad at keeping up with the new developments in RPGs over the last year. I haven’t even acquired that many new games, so this one is a bit tough. With a huge pinch of salt as I haven’t even finished reading the book, let alone actually played the game, I would say the Firefly RPG by Margaret Weiss productions. It’s a really good iteration of a lot of the ideas put forward in the Cortex Action system, but in a more adaptable and generic way than the Leverage RPG (which was previously the flagship for Cortex Action). From reading it, it’s a very solid way of representing the kind of game that Firefly might inspire. I look forward to playing it when someone I know runs it!

That’s sort of the problem, isn’t it? It’s always the problem. A game only lives when you play it. Just like reading a play script without performing it or seeing a performance, you’re only ever going to have half of the text. The tension in roleplaying, as in acting, music or any other form of live entertainment, is between the static page and live play.

I have played a very small percentage of the RPGs I own (under ‘played’ I’m counting running or GMing as well). Some of this is because I like to pick up RPGs that contribute something to the wider gaming conversation as well as the more popular ones, but some of it is the simple, and sad, fact that I will never have the time, the energy or the groups to play or run every single game I want to.

I’ve actually played quite a good range of games over the ten years I’ve been gaming – not just D&D, World of Darkness, FATE and Uni System, but also Rifts, Cyberpunk 2020, Everway, Monsters and Other Childish Things, Dread, Scion, Monsterhearts, Icons and Don’t Rest Your Head. There are so, so many more I want to play. However, a lot of the games from my second list are in my collection for the sake of one specific thing they do really, really well rather than as generic systems. Some of them are even famous for things they do badly (Rifts). That means, inevitably, that they’ll get played and run less, while more generic and balanced systems like D&D 4th/5th Ed or FATE will be played more.

Add to that the tendency of the gaming community to like long campaigns and consistent groups (both of which are fantastic) and the majority of gamers probably won’t ever be able to run or play everything they want to. I think as well, I’m suffering from the fact that I don’t go to cons (and don’t like gaming with people I don’t know) – it sounds like cons are a great place to rock up, get involved in a game and leave at the end of it, but that requires you to be willing to brave a con that is for more than just people who want to sit around a table for hours rolling dice, which can often be a challenge.

The UEA Games Society has a time-honoured tradition of getting locked in Congregation Hall for 24 hours to play whatever people decide to run. It’s a great way of learning about games you’ve never played before – the problem is that games take a long time. 24 hours sounds like a long time, but when you factor in eating and socialising, board games and an election for the society committee, and the puny human need for sleep that many people feel, it’s a challenge to feel like you’ve done enough. There will always be times when things that you wanted to get involved in clash with each other – and times when everyone is well into their games and there isn’t anything new starting.

So, a solution? Yeah, sorry, I don’t have one. I wish I could say ‘Everyone should play things that have weird mechanics and aren’t any of the mainstream games’, but that’s dumb. People should play whatever they want, and a lot of those mainstream games are much better balanced and playtested. It’s silly to say that we should reject games written by people at the top of their profession just because everyone else is playing them too. More events like cons, 24 hour roleplays and evenings designed to showcase a particular system are good – our local games shops have already started doing that with great success (and that’s how I know Edge of Empire is AMAZING). But that requires GMs, and more importantly, GMs who are willing to take anyone into their game who shows up. On top of that (learned from bitter experience), pitching a game that anyone can show up to is a fine balancing act, as you can have too many players or not enough. Offering to run a game and then no-one showing up is pretty upsetting. Ideally, I would like some kind of publication (or website, though websites tend to get overwhelmed with more general RPG news) that highlights particular systems that may have been overlooked. But hey, if wishes were owlbears, right?

I suppose my way of trying to improve this is to make an attempt to read more of the games I own, and to maybe even start writing little scenarios or statting sample parties. I find it really hard to passively read things (literature student ahoy), so these methods actually help me interact with the games in a more active way, and as a nice side-effect, it means I’m prepped if I ever get the chance to run something without resorting to a system I’ve played lots. It’ll never be perfect, but even if I can feel like I’m engaging with my hobby a little bit more, it’ll be worth it.

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Living a Hundred Lives At Once: My Gaming Credentials

Let’s get this all out of the way right now. For the sake of context, not boasting.

I was a geek before I knew what that was. My mum introduced me to Star Trek and Star Wars from an early enough age that I had nightmares about the salt-sucking beast from TOS and freaked out about the arm-cutting scene at the start of Episode IV. My dad, in rare moments of geekery, read me The Hobbit as a very young child and lent me his very old copy of The Lord of the Rings (held together with sellotape) when I decided to read it aged 11.

I introduced myself to many other geeky things: fantasy novels, computer games, comic books and TV series like Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My early computer gaming interests were RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and strategy games like Caesar III. I forced myself to become less squeamish so that I could read Sandman and negotiate my love of horror films.

Since then, my interests have broadened further, though I’m very aware that I’m a geek of all trades since I often have a surface knowledge of a lot of different things rather than a deeper knowledge of any one of them. I know the names of the captains and series of Star Trek but I don’t remember that many individual episodes because I grew up with them being broadcast in weird orders on BBC Two (as an aside, can I get a cheer for the BBC sci-fi hour at 6? I wish that was still on).

But none of that is about gaming (except the computer gaming, and that was limited by what I could find by myself or borrow from friends), mainly because I didn’t encounter roleplaying as a concept until I got to university. There, under the watchful eye of UEA’s brilliant Games Society, I learned about D&D, WoD (old and new), 40k and a whole world of experiences that I had never even heard of before. I’ve LARPed, I’ve livegamed, I’ve wargamed, I’ve CCG’d, I’ve boardgamed, I’ve tabletopped, I’ve done more computer and console gaming that I knew existed, and I love it. All of it. Sure, I may not be hugely fond of some systems or games, but I always said I would try anything but Cyberpunk and then I was in two long-running Cyberpunk 2020 games that were amazing.

And along with all of that, I’ve come to indie rpgs, story games and the theoretical side of gaming. It’s a relatively recent development, but I’m interested in games as an art and a practice. I don’t think my parents ever envisioned my English Literature degree being useful in gaming criticism, but hey, who knows where people are going to end up?

I’ve also struggled with generalised and social anxiety disorders for most of my life without realising what they were. I’ve been hampered by low self-esteem as long as I can remember. I’m self-diagnosing here, and my experiences are comparatively mild but they still affect my life negatively. I’ve become more aware and I’m learning to cope with them more over the last few years but they have meant that I haven’t taken opportunities and enjoyed life as much as I could. I’ve found that gaming is a hobby that impacts very strongly on social anxiety in positive and negative ways. Gaming can trigger immense social anxiety due to its nature as a group social activity but it can also be a useful arena for dealing with anxiety issues as a part of a community that is, on the whole, sympathetic and accepting of disorders and shyness.

The stereotype of the socially inept gamer is still a stereotype first and foremost, but the gaming community has a larger number of members affected by anxiety issues. I have found it to be a community where it is more acceptable to air personal issues and discuss such problems among friends who’ve probably had similar experiences.

This blog is, to some extent, always going to be divided. On the one hand, I want to talk about gaming and roleplaying in terms of theory, practice, art and context (both academic and social). I want to talk about geek culture in a wider sense as well, and other areas of geek interest. On the other hand, I feel that a blog focusing on social anxiety and the highs and lows of how it interacts with gaming would be interesting to write and it’s a side of gaming that lots of people within the community don’t understand.

The Anxious Gamer was born. I hope you enjoy it.