Saturday, August 08, 2009

System Still Matters

Here's what we've covered so far:
System Matters because it sets up the expectations of the players.
System Matters because it provides a reward system, impacting the style of play.

Here's today's discussion:
System Matters because the system chosen restricts player choice.

This restriction begins at character generation:

If I tell you "Make a character for a game," you will probably first ask me what game it will be. After all, if we're playing D&D and you show up with a GURPS Traveller character, we have a problem.

If I'm more specific with my request - "Make a GURPS Swashbucklers character," then you have more information, but still not enough to get started. At this point, you need to know what power level the character should be, if there are any off-limits Advantages or Disadvantages, and so on.

Every choice that I, as a GM, give to my players modifies their available choices. "Make me a 150 point GURPS Swashbucklers character. Some GURPS Steampunk and GURPS Space skills and Advantages are available. Disadvantages worth more than 5 points require specific approval. Humans only, unless you have a really cool concept you want me to work in. No magic-users."

I've just told my players what I want - and have given them a clue about the game we'll be playing. I slammed a lot of doors shut - I won't be seeing a party of Elves, for example. But they know to expect Steampunk Swashbucklers in Space. Since magic is not a default in any of these settings, my mention of magic-users hints that magic does exist in the setting. It also suggests that it's rare - or problematic in some way. And non-humans do exist - that is made explicitly clear in my instructions.

System Matters because it can support the setting.

In Dungeons and Dragons, you very rarely see Wizards on the front lines going toe-to-toe with monsters. Instead, Wizards tend to stand back and fire spells from a safe distance.

The setting1 says, "Wizards are not melee fighters - they are support characters." In response, the rules give wizards fewer hit points and it's harder for them to wear armor.

Many games have system "tweaks" to respond to specific setting differences. The Fuzion system is an excellent example of this: Even with the same rules, a Champions: New Millennium character would not fit into a Bubblegum Crisis campaign - even if you ignored the setting clash.

Why? Because Bubblegum Crisis is a fairly gritty setting where guns are a thing to be feared. Superheroes, by contrast, don't usually use guns (or fear guns). Because of this, the Champions character will eat most Bubblegum Crisis adventures for breakfast. And a Dragonball Z character will overpower a Champions character without breaking a sweat.

In general, I'm not fond of universal systems in part because people will inevitably try crossovers between two very different settings, and then get upset when it doesn't 'Work.' This is partly because of publishers who get lazy and don't tweak their engine for different settings - In my Fuzion example above, the system is tweaked for each setting.

Part of my general dislike for universal systems is because of this lack of subtle setting reinforcement - a GURPS Swashbucklers character will be equally as effective against a sword-wielding medieval knight out of armor as against a WWII soldier in the trenches. In theory, any 100-point GURPS character is on par with any other 100-point GURPS character.

This is one of the few areas where I give credit to Palladium Books. If you look at the Rifts setting and all of the hundreds of thousands of available character options, it rapidly becomes clear that certain character options are dramatically more powerful than others. The various authors and designers involved don't even try to maintain balance. There are character races which are clearly better than others. I'd go so far as to guess that there are options that less than 1% of Rifts players take because they are so dramatically inferior. At the core of this inferiority is the Mega-Damage settings, where some character are 100x as tough as others just because they're from a different universe. There's actually a decent rant on this here.

I've got more to say on this, but this post is long enough already, I think. I'll be at GenCon next week and will be spending my normal writing time packing. This means a two-week disruption in posting here2. In the meantime, feel free to watch my Twitter feed, which will be active next week.

I'll see you after GenCon.

1 I say "The Setting" - the same applies to all published D&D settings I can think of, many of which are virtually identical.

2 The Wednesday AFTER GenCon may just be an overview of my haul.

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