Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Big Eyes, Small Mouth (1998 revised) & Big Robots, Cool Starships (1999)

     Once upon a time, roleplaying games didn't feel the need to define everything and use the rules to constrict ideas and possibilities.  It wasn't that long ago, actually.  But looking back at one of the better experiments in an 'open system' – one that lets the players and GM (gamerese for Game Master, or the person who adjudicates the rules and plays "the world" instead of one character) craft their tales of adventure, intrigue, and so on without the need for everything to be detailed in the game mechanics – that came out of the late 1990s, I was surprised at how much roleplaying games have seemed to change.  At least for me.
     Now, Big Eyes, Small Mouth (1998 revised printing) wasn't interested in setting up a system that would define anything; that was up to each individual group.  No, what Mark C. MacKinnon appears to have been after was just a simple set of rules to allow for some balancing of the imaginative playground for those who wanted to play anime or manga styled stories out as a roleplaying game.  At the time, he still hadn't dubbed it the Tri-Stat system (a move I'm convinced was motivated by concerns for marketing the licensed products that would later be published by Guardians of Order).
     The idea behind it is insanely simple.  The core mechanic is just rolling 2d6 (or two six-sided dice, for those who don't read gamerese fluently) and trying to get a low total.  That is somewhat counterintuitive, but it makes sense within the framework of the rules.  What there are that amount to rules, at any rate.
     There is a system for building a character, distributing points among the three stats – Body, Mind, and Spirit – and how some values derive from how those points are spent.  There are suggestions as to what the levels purchased might mean in a given setting or game, but nothing is hard and fast.   Because BESM was designed to be used in any conceivable setting, it doesn't have chapters on skills (instead, a character can do most things that they should  be able to do, and can make a check against the stat that best fits the situation.  Combat is handled slightly differently, invoking a couple of derived values and characters can vary widely in ability.  Again, because it is written to accommodate any setting or story, there are allowances for giant robots and spaceships as well as magic and strange mental powers.  That last one is the only part where the rules get somewhat concrete, as mental combat is handled differently than normal, physical combat.
     By itself, the BESM doesn't feel like an RPG rule book.  Instead, it seems like the guidelines to allow players to break free from the restrictive chains that lock characters into a game-defined type or class or O.C.C. (instead of an anime defined type, which players are somewhat encouraged to adopt as it should help them immerse themselves in a different style of play that still mimics their favorite source material) while still rolling dice and having a fair amount of random influence on the outcome of the story.  As far as that goes, it holds up quite well – in spirit.  I certainly wouldn't pay $13.95 for the same thin book now (how reckless was I with my RPG spending...I easily spent about 1/4 of my income on gaming shit over a three year period in the late '90s and I'd like to have most of that money back), but that also has something to do with how my experience with gaming has changed.
     More on that later.
     The only supplement I purchased for BESM was Big Robots, Cool Starships (1999).  It functions much like the original, giving ideas for how to build mecha (or giant robots), cyborgs, androids, spaceships, or even magical armor with the same level of vagueness.  BESM was focused on the idea that the players and GM could operate in a cooperative manner and agree upon how the rules should be interpreted.  Because of the level of sparsity in regards to all-around detail, I think it works.  There isn't much of a way to win at BESM (though the Extra Attacks attribute introduced in BESM becomes abusive when combined with Multiple Mecha Attacks in BRCS, because the amount of attacks multiply with each other...and that means that one character may have one attack action each round and another could have 20) because the game is clearly meant to focus on story.
     In that regard, neither MacKinnon nor David L. Pulver (author of BRCS) manage to create a sense that they have a launching pad to steer players and GMs in what they assume to be the right direction.  This may be because MacKinnon originally had no intention of getting in the way of the players' good time.  There is also the issue that Pulver's suggested adventure is too bare bones to help a new RPG player, but too scripted in its expected outcomes to make experienced GMs and players happy. 
     Still, I was pretty shocked that it has only been 14 years (almost 15) since MacKinnon first wrote BESM.  He wrote in a pre-3E D&D world, where game companies did not have the luxury of writing for an OGL (Open Game License) system and making your own system almost always meant having a distinctive setting.  Sure, Fudge showed up in 1995, but it required a lot of work in terms of figuring out how much of the rules were needed for a setting or story, and in my extremely limited experience, players and GM often had difficulty deciding on how to play with the less than concrete Fudge rules.  GURPs had been around much longer, debuting in 1986, but it relied on concrete rules that were specific in terms of what applied to what setting.  There was room for GM fiat in decided for exceptions, but the supplemental material became canon unto the type of setting people played (not always, of course, but far more often than I would have expected).
     There is a danger when it comes to mixing hard defined rules with whatever the group agrees upon.  Indeed, I never had a good experience running (GMing) or playing White Wolf's Mage: The Ascension (I played with groups that used the 1996 2nd Edition) because it did exactly this.  There is no easy way to define how magic is supposed to work unless one resorts to a set of spells, and Mage didn't want to do that.  The problem became that players would attempt to do insanely powerful things (like create a living creature out of the aether) while having very little power as defined by the game mechanics.  It invariably turned into an argument and at least one player would pout because they couldn't do whatever they wanted to do.  BESM seemingly overcomes this because everyone has to agree as to what the rules mean, because the book doesn't define them to any kind of absolute or concrete terms.  Everyone would know what the rules allow for because they are the people who set the limits, and that seems both audacious and inspired.  It should even work.
     However, if my past decade of gaming has taught me anything, it is that players seem to crave system.  Story has become much less important.  Maybe it is the MMO effect, where how one makes a character has more impact than the story for him or her.  D&D 3E was a huge offender in terms on needing to have everything fit the rule.  Gone was the simplicity of giving the baddies an AC (Armor Class, or what level of skill+luck is needed to hit the creature or character) and HP (Hit Points, gamerese for how much damage a creature or character can take before it dies) and running a combat on the fly.  Gone was giving certain creatures the abilities necessary for the scene to look and feel right.  Everything became defined, and people who played the d20 system (RPGs that ran under the OGL system) got sucked into this trap.  I know because I am one of them.
     I don't know if I could take people whose experience came from that d20 mindset and expect them to get the much more free-form BESM.  I am certain that there are old-school gamers who prefer the fits the rules mindset that has fallen upon us.  I miss the story being king.  I miss the rules always being made to fit the story, and not vice versa.  BESM requires a certain level of maturity that may be best suited for the RPG player who has learned how to play but not yet settled into a rut of comfortable systems.  I do know that it would be a disaster for an Organized Play campaign, and that is where I see most my RP action these days.  OP play is an entirely different animal from home play, the kind of RPG experience that used to be the norm.  It is as different as being friendly with the people with whom one plays and playing a game with well-established friends.  OP requires a commitment to the rules because that is the consistent element.  It is rules over story, even when the story is very good.
The in-book example of a BESM character.  Simple, at least by RPG standards.  It is clear the focus was not on tricky out the character as much as it was making one that would be fun to play.  That is what I miss in RPG systems.
     And that is sad, because MacKinnon was on to something.  He was effectively giving the gaming experience back to the players and freeing them up from having to be slaves to the on-going products and endless releases of crunch (gamerese for game mechanics and rules) that allow for better, faster, newer, etc., characters.  It was an anarchist-light idea that worked for a brief while.  I would have been curious to see what Guardians of Order would have done with George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire setting, since they had the rights before collapsing because of debt.  What could have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment