Saturday, 14 March 2015

[System X] Or Nothing.

So, a friend of mine recently tweeted something at me that made me think. It was relatively simple, and it was an expression of frustration:

"I guess it had to be D20 or nothing."

I've definitely been there. I guess, in a sense, I still am there, because I don't currently have a group. Either way, this was about a game called Shadowrun. Shadowrun is awesome: It's a dystopian cyberpunk future where magic is also a thing, and over the years, the writers have fused the two together in some very interesting ways. But some folks really do get stuck in a rut with a system, leading to some very strange statements. In this particular case, the claim was Shadowrun was "too limiting."

Ummm... Okay, let's think about this for a moment.

D20 Style games use a class based system. This doesn't always make sense.

Unsurprisingly, there are no pictures of a Fighter/Wizard/Cleric/Rogue that I could find. This might tell you something...

When you make a character in a D20 game, they are going to be something. A Fighter. A Wizard. The Quick Lady. The Jedi. The Rapscallion. The Gentleman. They're mostly archetypal, a foundation on which to build your character.

But they also mostly allow taking a new class whenever, and this can make some heavy work for the GM. For example, let's take DnD 3.5, and the Fighter example. They start with the ability to use most weapons and heavy armour, something not every class has access to. Then there's the Sorcerer. Their thing is that they have magic from some inborn talent, that then expresses itself. Multiclassing into Sorcerer makes a sort of sense, as it's not something you learn, it's something you suddenly find was part of you all along.

But the Sorcerer isn't the only magic class in DnD. There's also the Wizard, and letting someone suddenly become a Wizard, in most DnD settings, is... Problematic. Why?

Wizards have taken years of training. So have fighters. In the story sense, that's like training for two different lifetime vocations. So it makes less sense in a story sense. It makes less sense in the rules sense, because Wizards start having learned spells (from said years of training), and written them down in a spellbook (Written over the course of said training, and, again in most DnD settings, writing in a spellbook itself is a learned skill with specialist materials).

If you take Wizard as a second class, the GM not only has to agree how that could possibly make sense in the setting and backstory you've already provided, or set the groundwork for you having learned how to be a wizard with little to no warning, they also have the terrible choice of either handing you a spellbook, somehow, somewhere, or not letting you have any of the accoutrements of a wizard until you beg, buy, steal, or find them. Which has just locked you out of the whole reason you got Wizard in the first place.

Not even counting the problems with Fighter/Wizard in DnD in general, this already has the potential to wrongfoot even a stellar GM.

Shadowrun Does This Differently

This Troll probably sucks at using the internet. But who gives a fuck, he has a license for that axe, and can summon ghost bears!

By contrast, Shadowrun lets you have the potential to be a mage from the get-go, while never barring you from combat training. But it also realistically expects that, if you're going to get those mage skills, you're going to have to work for it. And it has perfectly reasonable explanations as to why you can't be an Technomancer-Hermetic-Adept-Street Samurai:

1) Magic expresses itself very specific ways. A Technomancer is not just a different set of training, but, in a sense, a different mutation. Magic has touched the Technomancer in a way that it didn't touch a Hermetic Mage, or a Shaman, or the Physical Adept.
2) Skill points represent the kind of training you've had... College/University courses, spending time in a military programme, spending time on the darker side of the Interwubs, progressing from fawning script-kiddy to a Name To Tell Stories About. Anyone who's ever gone into any of these things will know that, at best, you can probably do only a few of these things, and if you want to get good, you're going to have to specialise.

So, in a sense, it is limited. But it's the kind of limited that leads to characters, not a collection of numbers that is nigh unbeatable unless the GM decides to play equally unfairly.

I'm not dissing D20, by the way, it does cinematic, combat based gameplay very well. But it leads into two points I wanted to make:

Game Systems are Designed for Specific Purposes

If you can't guess what this game is all about... I really can't help you. But it illustrates the point perfectly!

Now, we're not gonna really get into the paradigm of Gamist-Simulationist-Narrativist here (mainly because those are generalised categories of game design), but we're going to talk about what game systems emphasise.

D20 emphasises combat. It doesn't do "social combat" very well, and it's basically mainly good for a very specific type of game: One where you do a lot of fighting. Beyond that, the rules don't really back it up as well as you'd like. It's a power fantasy, it's about Being Epic, and it has no time for your discussions on the nature of the society you live in. There is a dragon to be slain, and no-name NPCs to save! Different editions had different focuses, but basically, it does Archetypes in High Fantasy Situations quite well, and everything else only so so.

Shadowrun, by contrast, emphasises the deadliness of combat. It also emphasises speed, forward planning, and networking. It's better than D20 for the "social combat" end of things, but the main thrust of it is that you are a team of professionals who could get fucked at any time by any other team of professionals. In a way, it's more democratic, because that no-name NPC could just as easily kill you with 25 Lbs of hi-grade plastique as you could using the same method. It's just, very often, no-name NPC doesn't have hi-grade plastique, and you do.  Probably not the best way to explain it, but there's a whole slew of subtle (and not so subtle) differences that make for a different experience.

The *World games, like Monsterhearts, emphasise the social end of things. The combat is barebones, but is itself a means to an end. In Monsterhearts, yes, you can fight to kill the bad evil guy or hapless mook... But it's more likely you're using combat as a means to get a social hold on someone, give them a reason to do that thing you want them to do. Because in Monsterhearts, you're teenagers. You're not heroes or mercenaries, like Shadowrun and D20. You're teens, the world doesn't make sense (or makes too much sense in all the wrong ways), and the game emphasises the emotional rollercoaster that being a teen entails. That it's laser focused on this has made it quite popular.

How nearly every Paranoia character ends up. Just so you know ahead of time. Also, please report to termination for receiving knowledge above your security clearance, Citzen, thanks in advance!

Paranoia, as our final example of this point, is about living in a world gone blackly, hilariously mad, about being a cog in a machine that's definitely not working as intended, and about fucking up. You are a member of a secret society. Secret Societies are illegal (punishable by death). You are a mutant. Mutants, unless registered (and thus spat upon) are illegal (punishable by death). You are a Troubleshooter, a throwaway resource of a society that is meant to fix these irreconcilable problems in the society, caused by the society that's ordering you to do it, and the only way you're going to get anything done is by breaking the rules. Which you aren't even meant to know in the first place (Showing knowledge of this thing called Paranoia Rulebook is punishable by death, Citizen). Everything about the rules emphasises this, including the fact that your fellow Troubleshooters are all traitors, you are a traitor, and your goals, both public and secret, contradict themselves in a way that's going to get you killed... But it's relatively consequence free, because all but the SRS BSNS versions of the rules allow you to die multiple times with no consequences.

Every game does something different, and it's important to know this. It's also important to know that every setting does something different, and you can mix and match for a tighter focus on what you want. D20 Shadowrun is about Bigger, Better Guns. *World Shadowrun is all about what kind of person Running the Shadows makes you. And Paranoia Shadowrun is probably a very scary thing... Please let me know in the comments if anyone has been crazy enough to try that, and how it went.

A Game/Group Lives or Dies By Communication and Co-Operation (Even in Paranoia)

Probably not the best example.

There is a phrase, bandied about on a thread about gaming stories, and it's one I want you to keep in mind:

Better no game at all than a bad game.

Roleplaying is a co-operative thing, and it's important for the fun of all that you're on the same page. My friend didn't want to play a power fantasy Monty Hall game where you go into dungeons, kill monsters, and eventually become a living demi-god that breaks the fabric of reality and common sense nine times before breakfast. This, from the conversation I had, was exactly what this GM seemed to always want. And being clear about this, instead of faffing about, would have made it clear, earlier on, that this isn't the GM for that.

D20 isn't fun if you aren't down for a certain kind of game. Paranoia seems needlessly hurtful and competitive if you aren't down for what's meant to be a light-hearted, backstabby game (The kind where you playfully cry "You git! I pull out my gun and waste 'em!" ... And then get blown up by your friend, Mister Computer, for not being a Good Citizen (TM) ...) Monsterhearts seems "too real" unless you set boundaries on what subjects are going to come up in your Twilight inspired high-school, and Shadowrun can be decidedly unfair if you aren't all agreeing that the story is a higher priority than Bigger and Better Guns.

Talk to your friends, if you want to roleplay. Explore the possibilities. Think about what kind of fun or exploration you want to have together. And while you may end up saying "Yeah, perhaps it's best if we don't"... More often, you'll find yourself exploring other viewpoints, other worlds... And having a whale of a time doing it.

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