Wednesday, June 24, 2009

System Matters

Let's get to the meat of the discussion, shall we? I have two words for you - they are words that the large sections of the RPG publishing industry spent the better part of a decade trying to convince you were incorrect. Words that the rest of the industry spent the same amount of time trying to reinforce and remind you of.

These two words?

System Matters

In 2000, Dungeons & Dragons released its third edition. The game was a huge step forward for D&D - it transformed the game, and advanced the system so it was almost caught up to the rest of the industry1. But it did one thing that advanced the entire industry - it opened its system up to third-party publishers, with a few restrictions. This meant that anyone could publish product that used the same system as the best-selling game in the industry. They were even allowed to claim compatiblity. Did I say allowed? I mean "required." Each book said on the front, "Requires the use of the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook." Sales exploded. For everyone. We saw d20 Superhero games, d20 Pulp Noir Detective games, d20 Cyberpunk games, d20 Horror games ...

For the first few months, all you needed to do in order to sell product to a distributor was slap that d20 logo onto the product.

And everyone that produced d20 product spent time telling you, "System doesn't matter. The flavor of the game comes from the Game Master (GM)." In essence, "The d20 Version of Game is just the same as the non-d20 Version of Game. If you are noticing a difference in your game, it's all your GM's fault." More on this later. And by "later," I mean, "Probably next week."

What these publishers forgot - and hoped you would forget - is that each system brings with it its own set of player expectations. Someone who enjoys GURPS is probably not going to enjoy a system with fewer rules, such as Vampire: The Masquerade, because each game has a completely different reward system. And yes, I know about the train wreck known as GURPS Vampire: The Masquerade. It took the Gothic Punk setting of the one and shoehorned it to the system of the other. The problem was that most GURPS players weren't interested in the setting, and most V:tM players preferred the system they already had. Steve Jackson Games published a few other World of Darkness adaptations

In fact, I suspect that GURPS Vampire: The Masquerade is a large part of why White Wolf and Steve Jackson both approached the d20 system the way they did - White Wolf published a series of settings and adventures that were completely unrelated to their World of Darkness setting (and didn't use the White Wolf name), and Steve Jackson Games waited a few years, and then began mocking d20 with The Munchkin Player's Guide.

Meanwhile, other games quietly started to take advantage of a growing d20 backlash. In 2001, Sorcerer (a game which had existed since the mid-90's) was a success in its print incarnation - not a huge success, but enough that smaller independent publishers started to take note. Discussion of game theory on the Forge took off. A few years later, the Indie Press Revolution took off. While they haven't billed themselves as such, these groups are to role-playing what the Punk movement was to music. But that's another subject for another time.

Is this to say there is no such thing as a functional universal system? No. Not at all. I'm also not saying d20 was a bad game - I thought some a few d20 versions were actually superior to the "original" versions of some games. I'll talk more about both of these later, as well.

I know it seems like I spend more time talking about what I'm going to talk about instead of just talking about it.

Here is why:
Every sentence I type spills fifteen more ideas into my notebook. Just in the last few paragraphs, I've realized that I have six different Cthulhu games (Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Toon2, Call of Cthulhu d20, GURPS Cthulhupunk, and CthulhuTech), that I have two different universal systems within arms reach (GURPS and FUDGE), and that I haven't played a White Wolf game in nearly a decade.

And, once I start to talk about one of those, they spill even more ideas. For example, it occurs to me that the Cthulhu games are a perfect example of how system matters. Each has their own way of dealing with sanity, and each has a different "feel" to it which is based in large part on the system. I am also aware that d20 tried to be a universal system, and it succeeded to a limited extent, but it still isn't as universal as FUDGE. I should write about universal systems and where they succeed and fail.


So join me next week, when I continue talking about system and how it matters. And, in a few weeks, I'll talk about setting and how it matters and how it interacts with system.

I'll get back to boardgaming, I promise. In fact, next week - despite what I've said here - I'll probably have an entry about Dungeon Twister. Or Ghost Stories: White Moon, which I've now seen the rules to. If, of course, I'm allowed to say anything about it.

It's also worth mentioning that Asmodee Editions and Repos Productions are sharing a booth at GenCon this year. I'm looking forward to meeting the Repos team.

1 Care to see the history of the d20 system? Check out Talislanta sometime. Especially the 3rd edition, written by Jonathan Tweet and published by Wizards of the Coast.

2 The Tooniversal Tour Guide has a section entitled "The Crawl of Catchoolu." It's a parody, but it's a functional parody.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Role-Playing Qualifications

So, to qualifications:

What qualifications do I have to talk about Role-playing?

On paper? I'm a credited playtester for two different publishers. That's ... yep. That's it. I have a playtest credit for Paranoia XP, and a playtest credit for Bloode Island XPG, where I was a playtest GM.

I've also run RPG demos at game stores and conventions.

Yep. That's it. On paper.

That doesn't take into account my 23 years of role-playing experience or my 17 years of game-mastering experience.

It doesn't include the fact that I've played everything from Rolemaster to Toon. I've done diceless and free-form games. I've played LARPs. I've also played Shadowrun, and I had almost enough dice for myself1. I could just make a list of games I've played (or run), but I honestly don't have time to type it up, and I'm guessing you wouldn't want to read a long list of games.

It doesn't consider the various books I've read on both playing and game-mastering. I have a large collection of games – but that's not important. What is important is that I've read them all, and could run nearly any of them with only a few minutes of review.

Even in 2002, when I made my transition from role-player to boardgamer, I continued buying and reading RPG's. That's not to say I no longer self-identify as a role-player, either – I just recognize that I'm more boardgame focused than RPG focused these days.

I have preferences. I won't deny this. In fact, that's what I plan to spend the next few weeks talking about – what I like and why I like it. I'm going to talk about systems, mechanisms, settings, and how they interact.

1 This is meant to be funny. But it only works if you're familiar with the First and Second Editions of Shadowrun. Third Edition toned it down, and the Fourth Edition is a completely different animal.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

LIDT Seeks Regional Managers

The LIDT posted this news item last week (click on the correct flag to change languages).

Go on. Read it. I'll wait.

There are two important things about this announcement:

1) I translated it. I used Google's translation page (which is improving) for a few parts, but I did it.

2) I'm the "Gamethyme" they mentioned for North America. I divided the US into six regions, and now I get to start looking for regional managers for those regions. I'm also looking for Canadians interested in pitching in. Please, if you're interested and have questions, e-mail me. My e-mail address is to the right - where it says "e-mail me." Much as I'd love to be the Regional Manager for the entire continent, there is no way I have the time for it. For the record: France, which is only a small bit larger than Texas, will have four Regional Managers. Of course, they have more DT players than we do at present, too.

That last, of course, is something I'm still working on.

I'm also working on a few posts for this blog that are more role-playing related. I'm not turning my back on Boardgaming (far from it!), but I'm gearing up to run a FUDGE one-shot, which means adjusting my mental gears towards roleplaying for a bit. I'll be (in the next few weeks) talking about what I like in a role-playing game and why not all systems are good for all situations.

Since one of my goals with this blog is to present myself as an expert, I'll start next week by listing my roleplaying credentials - games I've played and/or run and why I'm qualified to talk about roleplaying games in general. It's not like boardgaming, where I can point at my collection (as listed on BGG - I still don't have everything recorded, either. Not by a long shot) or the games I've played (since 2007, when I started keeping track) to establish that I know what I'm doing. Although I really should put up a post detailing my boardgaming credentials at some point.

Role-playing is a different animal from boardgaming (even if some games blur the line a bit at points), so I feel as though I have to establish my credentials on that front.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Meetup: Two Months In

As of this week, it's been two months since my weekly game night changed formats. Instead of free, it now costs five dollars to attend.

This money doesn't go straight into the store's pockets, however - Brian initially spent a small amount to start a meetup group (Meetup is free for end-users, but the organizers have to pay a small annual fee).

Additionally, each week, one or more gift certificates are being given out - the more people who attend, the more gift certificates are distributed.

So consider this the two-month status update:

We've grown. Not by leaps and bounds, not by the thousands and thousands that some Meetup groups have demonstrated. But we're a bit bigger than we were before.

We've lost a few old members who are opposed to paying for a space to play games - I don't blame them, and I understand their objection. But Brian (for all his generosity to us over the last few years) is running a business. It's also less expensive than a movie, at about $1 per hour (assuming ou get there at five and leave at eleven, when we shut down for the night).

We lost a few who are unemployed or otherwise can't afford to attend. There are coupons about to help these people out, but there is a drawback - if you use a coupon, you're not eligible for the weekly drawing. I can occasionally cover one or more of these people, but not often, unfortunately.

So we've grown and the crowd has changed slightly.

A different crowd means that we have different games out, too. The $5 cover charge has reduced the number of children present - and the ones who are present are more serious about playing games. Or I'm getting better with them. Or some combination thereof.

Meetup has definitely increased our visibility, and long-term, I expect more growth. I also hope to lure back some of the people we've lost.

Time will tell how much growth we'll experience.

I'd like to see more, of course. But then, I like having more opponents to choose from.