roleplaying games

The Novelty Treadmill

No gaming group is going to be perfect, and that’s not a surprise. Sometimes, though, general dissatisfaction mixes with otherwise minor personality clashes and leaves a game feeling frustrating. You want something different, something new.

For me, I’ve noticed that the statement “I want something different” is much easier to justify than “I want *X*”. Wanting something different comes about because whatever you have isn’t doing it for you, but wanting something specific requires a lot more justification.

My online group has spent a good chunk of its time throwing games at the wall to see what would stick. Generally every game play has at least one element that’s appealing, and at least one flaw that makes a chunk of the group dislike it. Fate ran fast and was fun, but seemed vague and “same-y”. Exalted had a remarkable world and backstory, but the mechanics are nigh-unusable. Star Wars has a good rules-medium system, but the world is the same one everyone knows and the game suffers mightily from splatbook syndrome. Not everyone is ever happy, even if we generally have fun.

Going forward, I’m trying to think about how to articulate what I want, rather than what I don’t want. As I think about gaming ideas I want to try, it’s very difficult to separate my system ideas into games I think would work well and provide what I want, and games that merely seem new and interesting. Part of this, of course, relates to something I wrote recently for Cannibal Halfling, looking at trying to define what players seek out of games. I need to follow my own advice and articulate what I need out of a game, and that ultimately is going to be more important than what system we’re using.

So first. I want to GM again. This I’ve known, this does not surprise me. I’m interested in long games, I’m interested in games with some level of mechanical intensity, but I’m interested mostly in games where the characters grow into people with some level of depth and personality. And I realize here that this is what I’m interested in for pretty much every game, whether I am running it or not. Equipment lists and power/ability menus are a waste of time if they don’t tell you something about the character and how the character is changing…for the same reason, finding a magic sword in D&D can be a great springboard for storytelling while finding the fifteenth magic sword with incrementally better stats is just a waste of time for everyone involved.

So how do I get to something mechanically and tactically involved while not devolving into large bouts of unnecessary ability lookups and shopping? I’m not sure. This may be the root cause of my system shopping, a desire to find something that is both mechanically detailed but also doesn’t encourage the sort of meta-mastery that plagues a lot of rules-heavy games. But then again, why do I want something mechanically detailed? What is it that I’m trying to do?

I think it goes back to what I said before…I’m looking for a way to run a game where interesting characters evolve, and my gut feeling is that you do want some level of detail to depict these characters and differentiate them. Although this probably isn’t a system problem, systems provide a crutch by which you define your character by their stats and abilities rather than developing a story and personality for them.

So I may need to put my money where my mouth is. Instead of looking for new systems that may magically solve the issues I see, I should double down on the systems that I know will work. PbtA is a good framework, as is Fate. While I have been hesitant to use Fate as a base for any of my exploration game ideas, that may be exactly what makes them work. Keep using the principles of hexcrawling and exploration to generate the game background and challenges, and then use Fate to resolve them. It will of course require some rules hacking, but I think I’ve always known it could work and work well. Now all I have to do is convince others to play the game once I’ve written it.

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