roleplaying games

Return to Crunch: Games in my bookshelf

Two games from my past have creeped up on me over the last day or so.

First, I received the Burning Wheel Codex as part of my contribution to the Kickstarter. I’m really excited to get a chance to read it.

I have before called Burning Wheel “my favorite game I’ll never play”. It is a masterwork of combining character-driven, narrative gaming with a very game-able and crunchy system. The downsides of this are a voluminous amount of bookkeeping (you track every single skill individually, by roll), narrow genre for all but the most dedicated GMs, and a requirement that you have player buy-in on both the work required and the style of game, which despite being fantasy is markedly different from your typical D&D fare. I want to run it, I want to run it very badly, but I don’t know if I’ll ever find a group willing to commit for the amount of time it takes to run a satisfying campaign (i.e. years). Nonetheless, I’ll read the codex, have another “holy shit” moment about my gaming like I did when I first read Burning Wheel Gold, and once again temporarily try futilely to find a group willing to play. Luke Crane, you magnificent bastard.

Second, a GURPS campaign came to me in my sleep last night.

GURPS was the first system I GMed in college, and for multiple reasons (not all related to the game system) that campaign represented a dramatic shift in how I GMed, the likes of which would not happen again until I discovered Fate. GURPS was my favorite system for years, both because of the unlimited possibilities it represented and because it shined when running my genre of choice: modern/near future action. After some ill-advised turns at using GURPS for PbP and one final shake running a converted Cyberpunk 2020 game, I put GURPS away and decided to spend some time running genre systems, notably Interface Zero and D&D. Then I discovered Fate and Apocalypse World, and the appeal of a “physics simulator” system like GURPS dropped significantly in my mind.

In the last few years since my last full-length GURPS game in 2012, GURPS has continued to stick in my craw a bit. My ideal roleplaying game would be one where you can write characters with a wide breadth of concepts, and strong mechanical differentiation. Fate succeeds in the first but fails in the second (you can write any character concept you want, but every ability boils down to a combination of fictional effects and/or a modifier) while Apocalypse World and other PbtA games succeed in the second but fail in the first (each playbook is richly and strongly differentiated from each other but the playbooks represent a limited number of available character concepts). GURPS, of course, succeeds in both aspects, at the cost of significant complexity, mechanical specificity, and a lot of work to define the subset of the rules ecosystem you’re using in your game. And the more fancy your world is, the more work you have to do.

I guess I’m not surprised that the game I came up with was not that fancy. It’s an early Cyberpunk-style setting that takes place in a city built around the construction site of the world’s first space elevator. The city teems with locals, expatriates, and migrant workers, and with corporates, independents, and criminals. I’ve made no attempt to write about the world at large (the city is in Brazil, both near the equator and naturally-occurring mineral resources that would be valuable for a spaceport), but it’s implied that the corporate-owned, free trade-enabled setting is made possible by the continued march of globalization, as well as the cultural fetishization of Silicon Valley technolibertarianism. There are also some interesting/sinister undercurrents about labor and the continued existence of careers and work, but I haven’t gotten into those at all either. Still, it means we have a setting that’s influenced by the politics of today, focuses on the technology of tomorrow, but ultimately represents a world before it goes full Snow Crash.

It occurred to me that given the central nature of the city in this idea I could actually run this game in The Sprawl, quite easily. But in creating this environment, with all of these interesting players, I realize I’d lose out on a lot of interesting story ideas if I did that. For one, the core conceit of a group of mercenary operatives that The Sprawl (and Cyberpunk 2020, and Interface Zero, and Shadowrun) is based upon is merely one of many stories that could be told. Also, the structure of The Sprawl encourages action, and while I may borrow some things to keep the players from getting stuck in analysis paralysis, I want to encourage more thoughtful approaches and more of a long game. And finally, this game actually would violate some of the genre expectations of The Sprawl. While the idea of a faceless corporation probably goes back at least to the 1970s, I want to push against the idea that the corporation is inviolate and will win. In The Sprawl, all you can do to win is get out. In this game, I want there to be more choices. I want the city I write to feel new, weird, and full of opportunity. And I’m OK with letting the players go in and break things if that’s what they want to do.

Using my experience from GURPS, I know how to keep things in check and at least somewhat realistic. I’m going to use item restrictions, which is something I’ve actually never done before: GURPS has a property called “legality class” which lets you restrict character access to weapons and other illegal goods. By keeping the legality class at 3 and above, I’m not allowing most military-spec weapons without the right contacts or credentials. I’m also going to be consistent about advantages and disadvantages. If I want to encourage thoughtfulness and tactical thinking, getting rid of cinematic abilities (Gunslinger and Weapon Master are two examples GURPS-heads will recognize) will be important. Ultimately it will be a bit more restrictive in the beginning than other games I’ve run, but I think there are still a virtually inexhaustible list of interesting character ideas available.

I have no idea when I’d run this game, and as I just started outlining it today, that’s perfectly fine. Unlike Burning Wheel, though, I know that my online group would be willing to give it a shot. And having an avenue for this itch to be scratched makes it more likely that I’ll put some time in to make this future game a reality.

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