Monday, December 5, 2011

Gaming in Different Systems (to break up routine and keep the game fresh)

I came across this really cool picture and I just can't find the personality for the character to play him.  The rules about the character seem to be getting in the way.  When that happens, I usually know to spend some time with other game systems to break my focus on the crunch and get back to roleplaying the characters.
     I don't think I am going to write anything deep or intrinsically meaningful (nothing groundbreaking, that is for sure) on the topic of why roleplaying gamers tend to play multiple games using multiple systems.  I'll leave that to anyone who wants to dedicate more than a few minutes thought to the subject.  It is something that happens, however, and I do wonder why.  Why don't these gamers – of which I am one – stick with one system?
     As far as this applies to me, I guess that part of the reason is that I have no desire to master a system.  I am not, nor do I think have ever been, looking for a way to game the system.  I don't want to get bogged down in the minutiae of the rules, the deep crunch that some enclaves of gamers dive right into, looking for a way to win at character creation or power combinations.  I want to be able to play, and in most instances to be capable of running the game (if needed).  But I still think the second rule should be to enjoy myself (behind the first rule – don't ruin anyone else's good time – and slightly ahead of the third rule – don't cheat unless you are the GM), and I usually don't happily read more into the rules than what I need to accomplish that.
     There is a danger of sticking too long to a single system, though.  Eventually, those little facets of the rules that I could avoid start springing up.  Worse – and this is the situation in which I find myself – characters start to seem less like organic beings who grow and evolve over the course of play (yes, I am generally that reckless when it comes to anticipating character progression – a topic I have briefly covered before) and things to be optimized or trickerated (read: made to have many minor tricks that, in combination, amount to increased utility and abilities beyond standard or optimized builds).  The characters stop having personality and become little more than the information on the sheet.  And that is just boring to me.
TMNT & Other Strangeness is one of my favorite RPGs – though also one that demands an adolescent mindset and indulgence in comic book sensibilities – but also one that lends itself to wholesale abuse of the system to make the best character one can make to win the game through combat.
     This is a problem I first encountered when playing Palladium games in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I was much more into TMNT & Other Strangeness (1985) and Heroes Unlimited (Revised) (1987) than Rifts (1990) or The Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game (1984).  On of the commonalities between TMNT and HU is that powers and abilities were things to be added to the base character.  Eventually rolling up characters on the random chart becomes less interesting than figuring out which combinations could yield the best payoff (often in combat).  There were animals (for TMNT) and power categories (for HU) that just weren't worth it when looked at in terms of what's best?, and when I realized I had reached that point, I started playing different systems again.
For some reason, 2nd Edition felt more mature and demanded more focus be on the characters than on the game mechanics and monsters to be defeated than 1st Edition.  (Ironically, the campaigns I played using the Basic/Expert editions were always more strongly focused on roleplaying and interaction than on combat.)
     I got back into AD&D (which had a 2nd Edition by that point).  I played the occasional game of GURPS.  I broke up the RPG sessions with Car Wars (the 1985 Deluxe Edition and then 1989's Third Edition) and BattleTech (1984).  Sure, BattleTech lent itself to trying to make the perfect combat 'Mech, but before the Clans and 3050 tech was introduced the game really relied on sound strategy and executed tactical maneuvers.  AD&D 2nd Ed. demanded – or so we thought – a more serious approach to the game world and to the character (seriously, check out the difference in how much text is dedicated to Alignment in the 1st Edition and 2nd Edition PHBs.  This worked out rather well until TSR introduced the Complete Handbooks and my group quickly devolved into figuring out the best way to make a character.  It was time for a new system.
     I kicked around the MechWarrior RPG 2nd Edition (1991) and some GURPs (1986). I tried Fudge (1992) but found it too abstract for my purposes.  My cousin tried to get me interested in RoleMaster but I prefer the rules-light, setting specific Middle-Earth Roleplaying Game (1984) and gave it a few months of play.  Eventually I fell back into AD&D 2nd Ed., but that was short lived as we – as a group – came to discover Vampire: The Masquerade (2nd Edition) (1992).  Vampire led to the other White Wolf games and it wasn't a little more than two years before the entire enterprise was back to looking like a bunch of dots on the page.  The characters who started these campaigns – Demius Bloodclaw in the Dragonlance AD&D campaign and Richard Talisman in the Vampire chronicle, both run by Jeff Bergman – shone so much brighter as beings with whom I shared time and gave voice than those toward the end.
God bless the two gentlemen who ran HârnMaster at the conventions where I played it.  There commitment to the game allowed me to play about 20 sessions without ever having to buy a book for it (though I did have some of the supplements by the end).  I think my time with this game cost me (all cost factored in) about $3 per session, and that seemed expensive at the time.  HârnMaster had the kind of customization that AD&D had lacked, but since D&D 3E allowed it...goodbye HârnMaster.
     I had a brief flirtation with HârnMaster 2nd Edition (1996) and played Star Wars d6 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded (1996) as ways to stay active with RPGs.  I ran Vampire and Werewolf: The Apocalypse 2nd Edition (1994) as needed but was losing interest in them.  Then Dungeons & Dragons 3E (2000) came out and I was all excited about playing D&D again.  The game had been made new, but it was familiar enough to allow me to dive right back in.  The break from it allowed me to be excited about the characters and stories all over again.
     However, I find myself playing only Pathfinder these days (and only the Organized Play scenarios and modules).  I have six character that I have played – Daenaris, Hymibi Jymbo, Kiara, Bellarius D'Nassi, Jenissa Halvarek, and Hedda Gørsyn – and one yet to be played (Aeoki Hyrushi, the character who is supposed to go with the picture at the beginning of the post).  I find myself having a hard time being invested when a character may only be played two or three times a year, but it is even worse when the rules seem to take over the experience. 
     I don't feel any strong need to get involved in different games, but I know that throwing different systems into the mix helps break up the desire to look at the roleplaying experience as something that can be won by making a better, more powerful, more resource-laden character.  In previous experiences, one of the things that changing systems did was expose me to new and different people.  I already get a steady stream – perhaps too much of that with PFS. 
     I know people who purposely plan short campaigns as a way to keep things fresh.  One of the things this allows is to let the duties of GMing be shared (OP accomplishes this much differently), but it also means that the players will likely move on to a new game before anyone has felt the need to figure out how to make the best character they can.  It keeps the focus on the roleplaying and the characters have to be found and defined quickly because they won't be around forever [Talisman was played for almost three years, Mistocles Sardis (Living Arcanis) was played for six years, and Daenaris was first played on 11/27/09].  I don't think that is what I want to do, but changing things up with different systems – on occasion – is usually a good idea.


  1. HarnMaster was (is) a cool system, hobbled only by the fact that it was built under the old-school gaming mindset with random rolls. I really like the system's use of opposed rolls in combat. If you are caught unaware, you will be hit HARD. Also, sometimes the best defense is a good offense - you could counterstrike as a defense, a tactic that could prove deadly to both sides.

  2. Casey,
    I would definitely give HârnMaster another shot if it weren't so cost prohibitive to do so.

    I'm pretty sure it was the first system where I mainly saw honest-to-God adults (professionals with stable jobs and perhaps happy families) as the people playing it. There was something rewarding in knowing that the RP was going to be (in the good ways) mature. Yes, the combats were usually much more brutal than I had grown used to in other systems (RoleMaster notwithstanding).

    From what I remember about the one Denver convention I attended, you guys have plenty of variety in terms of what people get excited about playing. It seems much more settled here in the flatland.

  3. Tim, I think I have two copies of the HarnMaster book. If I can find my spare, you're welcome to it!