Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Question of Character (and System)

I'm getting back in the groove of running a regular role-playing game, and I chose a very different genre for me: a sci-fi game set in the universe of Richard K Morgan's Altered Carbon books. I also decided to give a new system a spin: Eclipse Phase. I've had a really good experience with the Eclipse Phase team (they helped me out when I really needed it - seriously, excellent customer service), but it doesn't look like the system is going to work with our group's style. More importantly, with my GMing style.

I thought about this after reading a list of story-driven RPGs on The Mighty Atom, many of which I've at least read if not tried. My GMing style tends to be very story focused. I see the game as a chance for a group of friends to sit down together and tell a collective story, and the game system has to be an enabler for this. The system is designed to give the game some structure and resolve conflicts that arise in the story in a reasonable way (characters fighting other characters being a common conflict.)

Eclipse Phase turned out to be slightly too clunky for my tastes. It's not a bad system at all. It's a very good system, but it focuses a little more on simulation over story. This fits some people's playstyles perfectly but not mine. One of the reasons I was happy with the d20 system was that I knew it very well, including its limitations, and it did a fair job of simulating a character's abilities without getting in the way. The system was easy to push aside when you simply wanted to focus on story.

I've been thinking a lot about this in relation to other game styles that I enjoy. I agree about 99.99% with Shamus Young's comparison of Saint's Row 2 vs. Grand Theft Auto IV that he published on Twenty Sided. The money quote for me:

    In GTA IV, the mission designer has all the fun, designing something for you to enact. In Saints Row 2, the designer just fills the world with toys and you get to do the creative part.

This carries over into the characterization as well. In Saint's Row 2, you design your character from the ground up. He (or she) has no name. His history is painted with broad stokes, allowing you to fill in. In GTA4, your character is so specific that I'm certain there's a 100-page biography sitting on some brand manager's desk somewhere in Rockstar headquarters. It's fine for a movie. It's awful for a game.

RPGs, especially online RPGs, have had a hard time walking this line. Early RPGs like Bard's Tale or Wasteland had no 'stock' characters. You rolled your own, decided your class, named them, and they simply interacted with the world. This is the same model that most offline RPGs use, except all of the hard math stuffs are automated. The funny thing is, most of these early RPGs were very light on the story (if it existed at all.)

Eventually this changed, notably with games like Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment. The character was still largely up to the player but he or she had a defined background and history. You were no longer playing a character that was your own. Japanese RPGs are even worse in this regard, essentially plopping you in the role of an anime character where the only customization they allowed was swapping of gear or possibly changing the name. Which is fine if you want an interactive film, but not so great if part of the joy of playing the game is imagining yourself in the role.

RPGs have since swung back towards the Baldur's Gate or Torment models. In Fallout 3 players can define their character and even play through and define some of his or her background (within a set of parameters) and are then presented with a series of puzzles, missions and quests that they can solve pretty much any way they wish.

This is the design ethic I like to use in the games I run. I admit that it's been a long personal road getting to this point (what do you MEAN you're not going to do what I thought?!? There's four hours of planning down the toilet!!) This may not be a universal rule, but I'd be willing to bet that the system one chooses will match one's playstyle and storytelling style as well.

Does it matter in Just Cause 2 whether my character, a CIA operative with unlimited parachutes and a grapple wire-thing attached to his arm, is skilled in an AK-47 assault rife, an M16 assault rife, or a pistol? No. He can pick up any of these guns (in fact, assault rifles are just 'assault rifles' in the game) and blaze away at his enemies because it's more fun than him picking up one of several kinds of guns, looking at it stupidly and saying 'well, can't shoot this! without a -20 penalty! before dying in a hailstorm of enemy lead. Why? Because that's lame. It isn't any fun for the player.

Just Cause 2, much like Saint's Row 2, presents you with a bunch of options and lets you do things and solve things pretty much any way you want - it knows when to get the hell out of the way in favor of a fun time and progressing the game along. That's the kind of system I need in the games I'm running.

I'm not trashing Eclipse Phase - I have nothing but respect for the designers and the team. With a different group (and someone else as GM) I would absolutely love it.

The kind of game I want to run will hopefully be as fully defined by my players' imaginations as my own. Here's some stuff, you guys come up with a way to overcome it, hey that sounds reasonable, this is how it all plays out. It's the foundation for all RPGs but games of all genres too often get hung up on the fiddly parts and forget the fun parts.

1 comment:

Jeff Moore said...

I read a lot of free RPG's and some of them are really, really good. I would think you could find a good Sci-Fi RPG to run without spending a dime. I wrote a pretty open ended skill based RPG tool-kit called 5x5 that might do what you want. You can click on it from my blog. If that's too light weight for your tastes do you still have your Mutants and Masterminds book? It could do sci-fi quite well and is a pretty clean system. Just make characters at first level instead of tenth. I am also quite fond of Mongoose Publishing's Traveller core rules. They are firmly grounded in the games old school roots but the game polishes up nicely. It was one of my favorite purchases of last year. If you haven't done so, at least give 5x5 a look. It's a tiny little system and will need to be house-ruled, but that's part of the thing I like about tool-kit systems and why I tend to write so many games only that far... and then stop. Because I like the idea of evolving the rules while you play to fit your group rather than trying to shoe horn your group into someone elses vision.