Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rules, rules everywhere, and not a chance to think...

I had an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago, in which I participated in a FantasyCraft one-shot at a local mini-con. It was a lot of fun, and I want to keep an eye out for similar events coming in the future.

One of the things I found interesting, though, was my experience with the rules. Lately, as most of you know, I have been tinkering with the Gamma World and Dresden Files RPGs. The total shift in mind-set from these games to FantasyCraft, most particularly when it comes to character creation, has been idling in the back of my head.

For those of you unfamiliar with the systems in question, let me give a brief overview. I'm also going to include 3.5 D&D, as I made up a character for a new D&D campaign a couple weeks ago as well.

On the lightest end of character creation, we have Gamma World. This is mostly the lightest because roughly 90% of the creation is determined by either your origins, or randomly. You start by rolling a primary and secondary origin randomly. This determines your two highest stats (or one highest, if they happen to overlap), your skill bonuses, and your basic abilities. Now, roll 3d6 for any stats not already assigned, and roll up some random gear. Pick armor and weapons. (This is crazy easy, because the whole system is so abstract. Armor is divided into None, Light, and Heavy, and you may add a Shield. Weapons are divided into Melee and Ranged, One-Handed and Two-Handed, and Heavy and Light. Looking at your stats, your optimal choices are pretty obvious.) The longest part of character creation, aside from just noting everything down, is coming up with your name.

Dresden Files, powered by FATE, has a radically different system. The system is largely powered by Aspects, which are brief phrases that define your character. So, to create your character, first think of a phrase that describes your character's primary role in the story, or High Concept (e.g., Wizard Private Eye). Next, pick a phrase that is your Trouble (e.g., The Temptation of Power). Pick a couple other phrases that are defining (e.g., Epic Wise Ass and Chivalrous to a Fault). Now, talk to your GM and figure out which level you are creating characters at. This will tell you how many skills and stunts you have to work with. Look at the default ladders for your level, and plop in skills where they make sense. It takes a little shuffling, but isn't complicated. Stunts get complicated, especially if you are playing a supernatural. But, you basically get a handful of points. Each stunt costs a number of points (common stunts cost one, big supernatural templates are generally packages that cost several points). Any leftover points give you leverage to control the plot. Now the tricky bit is collaborating with your fellow players, to pick the rest of your Aspects in such a way as to forge connections and collaborations. There is very little math involved, and not much in the way of fiddly bits. But, you will fuss with the build pretty much endlessly, especially trying to get the wording of your Aspects just right. But, the process of fussing with it is also the process of making the character come alive in your head, before you ever start playing.

D&D 3.5 is a system with a lot of small moving parts. First, pick a race and class. Then, generate your stats. Figure out your derived stats (BAB, saves, hit points, etc.). Buy up your skills. Pick your feats. Use your feats to figure out what else has changed. Figure out your starting languages. Pick your equipment. If you're a spellcaster, figure out your spells. *whew* The plus side is that all of these parts, if you've picked them reasonably intelligently, click together to form a character with a strong aptitude, mechanically speaking. Generally, though, you get very little in the way of grist for the roleplay mill. (As a note, I tried to come up with a High Concept and Trouble for my new character, in DFRPG terms. My High Concept was still "elven bard." I haven't come up with a Trouble yet. This lack went completely unnoticed by the other players.)

FantasyCraft takes the 3.5 ethos even a step further. There are LOTS of small moving parts. But, one of the critical differences is that FantasyCraft is specifically designed to lend mechanical support to your role-play elements. Yes, it still starts with race and class, then goes through stats, skills, feats, and spells. But, you also make choices along the way like interests, which are hobbies your character indulges in. These actually have mechanical effects, primarily in helping you recover from stress damage. Your wealth is determined by splitting your points between Prudence and Panache. The more you put in Prudence, the more cash you keep from your loot. The more you put in Panache, the higher you live your life, giving you bonuses to Charisma checks (plus you get bonus cash at the beginning of each session, which is presumably all you have left after the ale and whores ran out). Making little decisions like these creates a feedback loop between the mechanics and "soft" aspects of the character.

So, what am I talking about here? Specifically, that I found myself incredibly frustrated when building the FantasyCraft character. Every time I thought I was done, I would find another blank on the character sheet that needed to be filled out.

This, to me, was really strange. Because I love FantasyCraft as a system. I love the original Spycraft even more. I was modifying it for d20 Rifts, and was adding even more elements onto the structure. And, I have to admit, that I loved playing FantasyCraft once I actually got into it. All of the pieces did exactly what they were supposed to do. It all just clicked.

Are my tastes moving away from rules-heavy to rules-medium? (None of these systems are rules-light. And, really, I've never read a rules-light game that caught my attention. They always feel more like ways to add structure to collaborative storytelling than actual games. I'm sure it's lovely, if that's what you want. But, it's not what I want.) I don't know. The two levels offer really different benefits. Rules-heavy systems have everything very well defined and, when they work, allow the world to just function like a well-oiled machine. But, as a trade-off, you have to define and keep track of all those little moving parts. Sometimes, I just like to chuck all that and say "a gun is a gun." And, especially, FATE has drawn me into the idea of marrying user-defined attributes, a solid mechanical system, and the ability to give relative weight to various elements based on narrative impact (as opposed to being constrained by "realism").

I've also been reading through a number of the RPGs I got from DriveThru's Haiti Relief bundle. There are some really nifty ideas out there. And, I've been surprised at how many of those ideas I'm responding to that revolve around "sit down, chuck some dice, and have some laughs." They aren't realistic. They aren't elegant. They aren't comprehensive. But, simply having read through them, I'm pretty sure they're fun.

I feel like, in a lot of ways, I'm coming back to a common point in the circle again. I actually kind of want to get a copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and read through it. After all, that is where I started gaming. And, that system is based around only defining what you need to, and winging the rest. Which is kind of what I'm attracted to right now.

Maybe it's a gaming mid-life crisis?

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