roleplaying games

The problem with constraints

I’ve been listening through the backlog of the System Mastery podcast. Not only are Jon and Jef hilarious, but in some ways I feel like they’re kindred spirits in gaming style. These guys have basically said that some of their favorite games mechanically are Fate and D&D 4e, and they see no inherent contradiction to that. In other RPG communities, most notably RPGnet, “rules-light” or “rules-heavy” is seen as a binary choice for many if not most people. Someone like me whose favorite systems of the moment are probably GURPS and Apocalypse World (at the same time) is seen as kind of an oddity.

When I was last listening, the two of them were answering listener questions and someone wrote in asking for a D&D adventure idea. Based partially on some jokes that had come before, they gave an answer that boiled down to “play 1920s bootleggers, except in a D&D world, and also there are blimps.” Through riffing off this, the two of them ended up telling the listener that the idea was too good, he couldn’t have it, and they were going to run it instead.

And you know what? It was a good idea, complete with a few interesting hooks and some great puns (the big bad was going to be “The Fuzz”, except instead of the police it would be sentient mold). And it dramatically violated expectations of what a typical D&D campaign setting looks like. I realize that, in thinking about how that world would look, that I have been sitting in my own box of “typical” settings and not really pushing the envelope in any way.

When I first started gaming in middle and high school, worldbuilding was one of my favorite parts. I’d write lengthy descriptions, make maps, and generally spend a lot of time intensely planning out these worlds. I’ve shifted away from this recently, and I think I’ve done so in a way that I didn’t think through and that hasn’t helped me. I think my instinct to push for player input is largely a good one…but using that to substitute for doing my own planning and worldbuilding has not worked out.

I keep thinking through ideas for new games and broad strokes concepts, but other than a bit of my planning for The Sprawl coming up with settings hasn’t been exciting me recently. I think I need to do more of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that gets you “1920s bootleggers in a D&D world” rather than falling back on established setting tropes. And while system does matter insofar as the style of game you want goes, it doesn’t restrict you nearly as much as you think it does. I need to keep remembering that.

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