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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mechanics, as the charmingly old-fashioned elements of a setting are rarely as head-poundingly frustrating in play as outdated mechanics (the exception is when settings include prejudiced elements that were considered acceptable at the time but are now recognised for what they are).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 2014: Day Two – Terms of Endangerment

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Sorry for the darkness of the picture, it was that or a glossy shine that obscured the cover art

Day Two of the #RPGaDay challenge is ‘your first RPG Gamemastered’. Mine was Unhallowed Metropolis, a post-apocalyptic-steampunk-zombie-survival game. It’s an enjoyably batty game with one of the best settings I’ve ever read and an unfortunately flawed rules system. In running games (I haven’t actually run very many) I have found that the most important thing going in is for the GM to manage the players’ expectations and assumptions. It’s something that can be difficult to do, as it requires being brutally honest about what a game is going to involve and be about, and there’s always the lingering fear that you might end up without any players as they all decide it isn’t for them. Human beings don’t like rejection, but I’ve been in enough games where the Terms of Engagement weren’t made clear right at the start to know that it’s much better to be brutal at first and happier in the long run. I ran into this problem with the two campaigns I’ve done, Unhallowed Metropolis and Witch Hunter: the Invisible World. I think part of the problem was that I didn’t know what  was planning for those campaigns, and it was also that I hadn’t run any games before, so I didn’t understand the kind of job the GM has to do. To be fair to them, my players in both games were brilliant. In Unhallowed Metropolis, I had some who were into the super emotional backstory stuff and some who were more into the immediate ‘shoot zombies a lot’ stuff, whereas I wanted to run a horror game, so I knew that the emotional stuff had to feed into horror directly and the zombies should feel like a terrifying enough threat, even with the players’ ridiculous armoury. In many ways, I feel that my fail at setting out my campaign before it started was saved by the fact that my players were so happy to respond to where I wanted to guide the campaign, even if the combat characters didn’t always have something to do and the social characters sometimes felt like they weren’t in the right arena. I still feel pretty proud of it, even today, but it could have gone very wrong.

firefight_by_meluran

‘Firefight’ by meluran. Source: http://handcannononline.com/blog/2011/08/11/unmet/

Witch Hunter, on the other hand, is a game I feel proud of but also a little sad about. I knew what I wanted to run, and could have answered easily if my players had asked, but I wasn’t confident enough to explain it fully. I particularly wasn’t confident enough to say that the grumpy anti-social woodsman and the foppish French aristocrat couldn’t easily both be accommodated by many scenarios. I deliberately jumped my own shark by including a comedy Christmas game (it involved a cakeomancer who was stealing hearts to craft his gingerbread army) but I acknowledged that trying to force the game into something I hadn’t ever explicitly set out wasn’t doing anyone any favours. Instead of full-on survival horror in an unforgiving colony, I went for action with a dash of humour and occasional moments of horror, and it worked fine. I can still make my players shudder by reminding of the Patch Jack that they thought they were escaping, only to realise it was keeping up with their horses. Ultimately, I think my players had fun, but it was only when I loosened my hold on the reins a bit and let the game be what it was going to be that it worked. It wasn’t what I originally envisioned, but it was fun. So, even if you find that your beautifully-crafted campaign of subtle political intrigue is changed by the players into a guns-blazing game of big damn heroes, try going with it and see whether it’s fun after all. Stuff I now endeavour to do before pitching a game: – Even if you don’t know precisely what’s going to happen in a campaign, make sure you have a rough idea of the tone and what you want to run. – Make some suggestions about what kinds of characters or focuses would be appropriate and if there’s something you really don’t want in the game, make it very clear from the start. – Consider the fact that players will do what is fun for them, so you may end up having to compromise. That’s OK, role-playing is a collaborative thing. If you want a story that they will receive passively and not change, write a novel and avoid the fan fiction communities. Players will get much more out of a responsive GM who allows them to explore what they want to explore rather than keeping them to a strict plot or tone. – Have a talk with your players about the game and really listen. If they don’t know much about the setting or system, explain it in a way that emphasises the focus of your game. If they do know the setting or system or have played it before, talk to them about what’s happened in games they’ve played, which bits interest them and try and root out their assumptions about the game. That way, you can either make it clear that your game is different or incorporate them rather than being surprised by them. – If possible, try and get the players together to gen. It’s a faff, I hate doing it, but it means you can have a nice talk with them before hand about all the above and you won’t end up with two characters playing the same archetype – or if you do, they’ll do it in different ways. As a GM, it’s really important to respond to your players, but it’s also important to know your own mind as well. If a game isn’t going how you want it to, instead of letting it fizzle as you lose enthusiasm, round it off with a bang over a couple of sessions and then move on to something else, or try a new pitch and new players. You actually have nothing to lose. Links: Atomic Overmind Press, which published the revised edition of Unhallowed Metropolis. I really hope they fixed the rules, because it’s a game that deserves a lot more love. Vernian Process is a steampunk band who did some songs about Unhallowed Metropolis. RPG.net review of UnMet.