Saturday, September 29, 2012

But Is That Really SYSTEM?

Good morning, Room 209 Fans!

This has been a busy week for Room 209 Gaming.  For those of you on our Playtest list:  please fill out that survey so we know what times are best!  For those of you who aren't on our Playtest list but are in the Raleigh-Durham-Cary area and are interested in playtesting with us, please email us at contact@ this domain and we'll put you on the list!  For those of you who are nowhere near us, fret not!  We are rapidly approaching our open-playtesting phase, when we'll be putting the rules up on our website for others to peruse and try to use.

In anticipation of that change in traffic, this coming week we will be making some serious changes to our website.  We'll be adding forums and a new architecture, so if you visit us and something's broken--please let us know!

Now, for today's topic, I'm going to talk about a really great question that came up during our last playtest session.  We were discussing our goals for Infinite Earths, and Jonn Perry asked:  "Is what you're talking about really system-related, though, or is that just in how people play?"  My answer, after the break:

Welcome back!

The statement that I was making that brought this question up was the broad statement that I prefer players who behave, in-game, like civilized people.  Caring for the NPCs, treating them well, avoiding fights if they don't have to rather than diving straight into every conflict looking for blood. . .and the other guy's spleen.  Social action, rather than bloodshed, to my mind makes bloodshed all the more meaningful.

It's like the difference between the loud, always-swearing fat guy and the little scrap of a girl who is always so quiet and polite.  When the fat guy starts yelling and screaming well, okay, that's what he always does.  When the girl starts yelling and screaming, holy shit run for cover.  (And just to be clear, I'm not making broad generalizations about anybody--I have just described myself and my wife and business partner, Sarah Perry-Shipp).

I then moved on to talk about how very few (I say very few instead of none because there are gaming systems out there I'm not familiar with) mechanically-crunchy systems are designed with this kind of playstyle in mind.  To which Jonn asked his question.

Now, I've been an AD&D and D&D player for years.  It was the system I cut my teeth on, and of all the systems I've ever played, 3e was my favorite for general ease-of-use and sheer number of options.  I enjoy other systems (WoD, GURPS), but those are much less tactical.  WoD is designed for theatre of the mind, and GURPS is designed for you to die if you ever get near a weapon, greater fool you!

Now, that was never really a problem for me--because I played with a specific group of people (the other founder of this company).  We tended to all play the same way, as if the game was a great big movie and we were the protagonists trying to make it through with our goals and dreams intact.  But what I found when playing with other players is that we didn't do anything like what they'd experienced.  To them, this game system (3e) and its descendants were about going into a place, killing everything that's there, and looting the bodies.

So, is that system?  Ultimately. . .yes.  And here's why:  the systems that game designers develop are self-reinforcing.  The kind of play you expect players to engage in when playing your game is the kind of play that you support, with rules and with your design.  And if you lack rules and design for specific kinds of play, you are telling the players this is not the way the game is designed to be played.

I'll use a football analogy:  there is no rule in football that would allow a linebacker to steal the ball from his own team and pass it to the opposing team, then run with the opposing team to make a touchdown against his own team.  Why?  Because that's not the way the game is played.

So, if we were to have a very complex system of combat-related rules (as 3e does), and a practically nonexistent system of social-related rules (as 3e does), we would be saying to players that we expect them only to fight.  And this is the general expectation of most players who approach D&D games:  there's going to be fighting, lots of it, and let's get some loot.  They're not wrong: that's what the game is about, according to both its own native ruleset and the adventures that are put out for it.

Which means that if you want to play the game differently, you have to find a GM and other players who are willing to play it differently.  People who are willing to change their default assumptions and run with it.  Which is the other side of the question:  "Why not just find players and a GM who play the way you want to play, instead of building an entire system around the way you want to play?"

And the answer to that is simple, as well:  to make sure expectations are clear.  When you play a World of Darkness game, you generally can expect somebody's not going to break out a square-grid battlemat and start placing minis.  That same idea is behind Infinite Earths:  we want to set player and GM expectations for a certain kind of game.  Not just fighting, not just talking, but something that acts as a mix between the two, and has a ruleset that fully supports both.  Something with crunch, but not too much math.

And so far it's been fairly interesting.  Ray and I will be talking in future columns here about the difficulty of getting one's mind wrapped around a system that so clearly distinguishes social roleplay.  Because that has proven to be something of a challenge--for instance, players who immediately think "let's mind control someone to find out something" instead of "let's just talk to him." 

Again, though, that's behavior they've been taught by their systems and by their GMs.  They have been told to narrow their thinking, to make their GMs' lives easier.  If not directly, but by sudden lack of options.  How many of us have experienced something like this:
"I want to try to find somebody I can learn this from."
"There's no one around to talk to."
"Okay, I go find somebody."
"He doesn't want to talk to you."

"I grab him so he can't get away and ask again."
"He doesn't know anything about that."
And neither do the next dozen or so NPCs.
How fun is that?  Not bloody well very.  But that kind of situation crops up all the time.  And whenever it does, it kills a little bit of that joy, wonder and creativity that players who are interested in role-playing games naturally bring to the table.

So, ultimately, it is about system.  It's about a system that promotes one style of play over another, instead of giving GMs and players clear options for both.  And that, ultimately, is the goal of Infinite Earths.

Thanks for reading.  Next week, I'll be talking about the role of GM Fiat in Infinite Earths, and how we're aiming to give more power to the players while shifting GM focus from rules governance to storytelling, without further expanding Fiat.

See you next time!

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