What a game can and cannot properly do
The other night’s session of Edge of the Empire was a canned mini-module from the back of one of the sourcebooks, a four page overview of a swoop race conducted in the Crystal Swamps of Corellia. We didn’t have a lot of time allotted to game this weekend, so we tried to do something short and simple, just for the sake of having some game time. (The irony here was that our role-playing ended up making a four page encounter module last about five hours. We need to rein things in occasionally.)
As adventures go, it was well done, but I’ve come to expect that from Fantasy Flight. They managed to charm the lot of my playing group in the course of half a module from the boxed set, to the point that we gave up running Savage Tide for the time being. If nothing else, they can make solid adventures that showcase the strengths of the systems they use, and that seems to be enough for our purposes.
The basic set-up was that the characters were given the chance to run in a local swoop race, knowing full well that their opponent was going to sabotage their efforts and cheat her way through. It gave us a chance to flex the vehicle rules for Edge of the Empire and get a better idea of how to run ship or vehicle based encounters. Being that Fantasy Flight is busily making miniatures for the spin-off game, X-Wing Miniatures, they’ve got a solid enough system already in place for such undertakings. (It’s my understanding that the two games intermesh very nicely, with only the slightest amount of tweaking needed to integrate.)
In the end, it ran very well, with proper tension and surprise, and gave us a good idea of how space combat would then logically play out. But it got me to thinking about how poorly it could have gone in other games.
Some games are built for very specific simulations, and if you were to step too far outside the narrow band of what the game could properly do, everything tends to fall apart. The best that you can hope for is that the GM who’s trying to run something new and interesting has a good handle on the spirit of the rules and the effect he’s trying to pull off and can knock together some sort of useful house rules to adequately model whatever it is that’s going on with a homebrew system that’s not overly complicated or distracting. The worst will probably be a clusterfuck of desperate hackery that’s been lifted from another, better game and painfully applied to a game that has no business going in that direction in the first place.
I’ve seen some of these attempts. They ain’t pretty.
At their hearts, most RPG’s start with a combat system. The origins of the hobby pretty much inform this decision, as miniatures games are all about tactical considerations and weapon damage. Recent directions in the hobby have landed us with all manner of indie game that pushes combat to the back of the line, but there’s a reason that they’re indie games in the first place. They’re built for a very specific and narrow purpose, which they do extremely well in a lot of cases, but they’re not terribly adaptable outside of this purpose.
So, once you have the combat system in mind, it’s a question of how the combat is meant to play out. Dungeons & Dragons has ebbed and flowed on the idea of tactical miniatures, with some iterations of the game drifting further into abstraction while others practically sell you the minis with the main rulebooks. (And given that several of the boxed sets include minis or cardstock stand-ups, it’s never far from anyone’s mind.) Savage Worlds was built on the Great Rail Wars combat system, which also cleaves it pretty closely to that mindset. On the other end of the scale are games like Exalted, where some aspects are closely focused on while others are left up to narrative resolution. (For example, combat is very precisely timed to the second, allowing fast characters to take advantage of the timing to get in extra moves and attacks. Oddly, this sort of precision is what turned the normal sort of White Wolf players off the system, as it seems to be too complex to the sort of people who prefer Live Action.) While there were miniatures for 1st Edition Exalted, they were somewhat orphaned without an actual system for tactical combat.
Once Combat has been properly established (or downplayed, as the case may be), it then falls to figuring out what sort of skill resolution is necessary within the context of the game. Early D&D (as noted by the OSR perspective on things) tended to leave much of this up to the skill of the player. The GM would adjudicate whether or not the efforts described by the player were convincing enough to actually pull off, rather than noting if the character actually had any skill in the relevant areas. When games like Call of Cthulhu (and its attendant BRP system) came along, they tried to codify what a character knew, if only for the sake of preserving some of the mystery and horror of the game world. Chances were good that players either knew everything about the Lovecraft Mythos, or they knew nothing, with very little middle ground. By putting the skills to specific numbers, the intricate knowledge of what might be going on could be shifted down to ‘in character’ or ‘out of character’ awareness.
From there, it’s a matter of what sort of sub-systems are in place. This can be as general and expected as social combat or vehicle rules, leading all the way to cattle ranching and jury tampering. (KenzerCo’s Aces & Eights was a bit of a strange game, but I’m honestly proud to own it, for all its inherent weirdness.) Torg included stock market manipulation, Exalted had systems on bonecrafting, and Deadlands included things like spirit tech, where you had to make friends with the linked souls of your gadgets to craft items. All of these had useful applications within their own games, which skewed the gameplay in that direction.
Overall, the role of such systems within the game often determine what aspects of the game are intrinsically important to the game itself, thereby pushing the players and GM’s toward such ideas in their games. And rather than run this entry towards 2,000+ words, I’ll pick this up tomorrow…