So, as my exploration of other sorts of rpgs continues slowly but surely, I've began to question what I want from a roleplaying game. Moreover, it's a challenge to myself based around three core concepts:
1. The ascertion that if you ignore the rules of a game that you are playing, you might not be using the correct game for the campaign you want to run/play.
2. That when I am GMing I am all about the intricacies of character generation and then almost AWOL when it comes to other rules.
3. That in certain systems there are things which really get under my skin that can, I believe, be answered within rules design.
1. Is abandoning rules a reason for jettisoning a system? Or do you play the rules where they lie?
Or in other words, if you are playing D&D3e and not using AoO, are you really playing D&D3e? After all, that one change to the rules permeates virtually every aspect of the game. Not just combat, but also spellcasting and feat selection (and therefore character customisation). Attacks of Opportunity are as central to 3e as well.... feats and skills!
However, I have never used them nor can I envisage a time when I would. I abhore that 'minatures without minatures' style of combat and much prefer the more descriptive cinematic style which plays fast and loose with movement and positioning to make things more exciting. So, is D&D3e the system for my games then?
Well I would suggest that yes it is, for a number of reasons. The first is that by jettisoning a game you can lose the baby with the metaphoric bathwater. You can lose a lot of good stuff if you cannot handle one mechanic. Secondly, I think that this attitude is driven by a massive knowledge and availability of roleplaying games. I simply cannot just reference a dozen replacement rules options and then go and sample them to get the perfect system. It's wholly impractical. Needs must etc. Lastly, if the GM is going to be able to work the rules to the benefit of the story then he needs to be able to change things a little. Being a captive of the ruleset simply isn't appropriate.
However, I do agree that sometimes you have to look at the metagame you are playing within and the accepted styles of play of your group and see whether something different might be more appropriate. For example, the intricate group play we have had before was coming undone at the seams by player absenteeism (for very good reasons). Pendragon solves that through the mechanics it promotes and the year-on-year pace of the game. That was a positive change.
2. Absentee Gamesmastering - When is a game not a game? When it's a storytelling session!
I'm not a great one for rules outside character generation. I love them in character generation. Char Gen can be as complicated and intricate as it likes as far as I am concerned. Bring it on! I want to know every single aspect of my character. I want it down there on a piece of paper as the best aide memoire I can get. I don't care whether it is a very mechanistic method with stats and skills for everything and then some, or something a little more fluffy with contacts and feelings and agendas and whatnot. I just love seeing this new person come into being, there, on the page and in my mind. I use the rules as a tool to help build the character in my mind - rather than, as some do, create the character in my mind and then make the shape fit within the rules, or even the rules fit around the shape. I find that the process of Char Gen fires for me, and makes me think about new and different avenues for the character.
And then the rules stop. In my games I couldn't really care less about movement grids, movement rates, attacks of bloody opportunity, encumberance and other such nonsense. Money usually sees the door early too. Unnecessary for many of the genres that I play within. NPC interaction rules are another early victim of my sweeping scythe - if you want to fast talk the NPC then you'll roleplay it and I'll decide whether it passes muster or not. Yes, I know - what about people that don't have good verbose skills - couldn't care less. Roleplaying games require you to develop your oral presentation skills and now is as good a time as any!
Now this might seem a little strange, but I kind of like rules when I am a player. I like those little nuances of the rules that allow your character to do cool stuff like Fighting Defensively. I absolutely adore the Winter Phase business in Pendragon and all the blue booking potential that delivers. Essentially, my expectations appear to be different as a player and a GM. What a freak?!
Freak I may be, but it's something that I want to get my head around because there has to be a middle ground.
3. Rules that grind my gears.
Or rather an explanation of a passage of play that really doesn't make sense to me as a player. We are playing Pendragon and during a battle our forces are trying to breach a gate. We have made a small opening but the enemy are trying to close the gate again. Myself and another player decide to put our not inconsiderable bulk into the effort. Now, the knight that was doing it with me is, in a one sentence build, the repentent Christian seeking to cast off the shadow of his fathers dodgy past. I am, literally, the massive reckless Irish giant warrior always ready to fight.
So we roll the dice. And I fail. And the little Christian succeeds. Now, with my SIZ 17 and STR 16 and Giant distinguishing feature and general demeanour as a combat beast I felt slightly aggrieved that my knight could not bust that door open. It felt somewhat like gimmick infringement, in wrestling parlance. All because of a dice roll. Thats one of the things that I'm growing to dislike about straight dice roll games. I may have all the benefits of size and strength and character concept but a Knight with STR 11 is going to (quick number crunch) beat me in a feat of Strength around 22% of the time... on the whim of the dice. Note: I don't have a problem with the game, nor the players or the GM (*waves* Hi guys!) but the system doesn't quite convey that sense of character identity in that mechanic.
So what now?
Well I guess I feed all of that quietly into my expanding mental portfolio of games design. With one question to be answered - who do you design a game for? The Players, The GM or both... and whilst the answer may be easy, the solution to the problems that brings may not be as simple.