Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Drive Towards System Mastery

With our Version 5 playtest wrapped up (and a spate of two months' worth of 60-hour work weeks behind me, freeing up brain power and blogging time--hi everyone!), I'm giving serious thought as to where to go next. Not just in terms of what sort of campaign to run, but where next in terms of how I approach RPGs.

Seems like every 6-8 years I undergo one of these metamorphoses. The last time around involved me reorganizing my gaming shelves into a system ordered by what games I was both familiar with and felt comfortable running (top shelf) down through to those games I had bought and never so much as read (bottom shelf). This in turn led to my renewed interest in (and frequent playing of) Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu, as well as (indirectly) to me starting this very blog and plugging in to the OSR.

The itch I'm feeling these days isn't so much an overhaul as a further refinement of my current approach to gaming. I'm feeling the urge to master a single one of those "top shelf" systems.

I've always been vaguely in awe of those of you who pick an edition of D&D and just stick with that pretty much exclusively. Whether it's Basic, AD&D, Pathfinder, hell, even Version 4, I can't help but admire the folks out there who have managed to, if you will, make D&D their bitch. That level of commitment to a single system, let alone a single genre, is something that's always escaped me. I'm a recovering sufferer of Gamer ADHD, and even in my more recent, less excitable years I've been known to fall victim to the "ooh, shiny!" complex, mostly in regards to cool concepts rather than fancy rules. In other words, I like to genre-hop, something that has kept me from being a "D&D only" type gamer.

However, although I could never devote myself to a single genre, as do the hardcore D&Ders, I've long been fascinated by the idea of mastering a single system. GURPS was the second RPG I ever bought, after all, and a big selling-point at the time was the pitch that with a single set of rules one could run a wide variety of campaigns without having to learn a new system each time. And there's something tremendously appealing to a certain part of me in the idea of essentially becoming of a walking encyclopedia of a particular system.

What's prevented me from doing this is the other part of me that falls in with the indie crowd and, sneering from the shadows of that crowded trendy dive bar of the gaming world, asserts, "System matters." Why play GURPS Horror when you can play Call of Cthulhu, with its mechanics specifically designed to emulate fear and mental deterioration? Why play BRP Fantasy when you can play Burning Wheel or Pendragon, each featuring mechanics precisely tailored to emulate the genre conventions of the specific brands of fantasy they're emulating? Why pay a hooker to put on a French maid outfit when you can play Maid...?

Such has been my rationalization for the past 20 years, the rationalization that's kept the generic systems on the back burner. But after taking a break from GURPS, I've recently come back to it with a fresh perspective - running a couple side campaigns in the process to take the system for a test drive, if you will - and it's got me thinking about system mastery again. Individual systems may matter, but there's also a lot to be said for being comfortable with the rules - so comfortable, in fact, that the rules become almost transparent, allowing one to focus on the campaign and the characters. Big, meaty systems like GURPS or BRP don't lend themselves well to casual play, one of the reasons I was finding myself continually frustrated by GURPS back in the day. So why not jump in all the way?

Such a commitment would not mean a repudiation of all the other games on my shelf by any means. For one thing, they'll be there for idea mining. And for certain games like CoC or Pendragon, I'd never seek to replace the play experiences they generate. (And indeed, the Solo GPC will keep trundling along until such time as it's finished, whatever my other projects may be.) But I'd step away from other games until I felt like I'd mastered the system of my choice. Only then would I allow myself to run some of the other systems on my shelf rather than just steal from them.

At the moment, I have three candidates in mind for system mastery, should I pursue it: GURPS, BRP, and Savage Worlds. Each has its pros and cons. I love GURPS for the richness of its character creation and the challenge it presents should I choose to try and truly master it--there are just so many modular, plug-in rules, the range of campaigns I could run in the course of learning and utilizing them all boggles the mind (which is kind of the point of the system, I suppose). BRP brings with it an elegant simplicity as well as familiarity--most of the gaming I've done over the last six years has been BRP or derived systems. However, it lacks the deep character generation options of GURPS (not always a bad thing, I'll concede) and part of me thinks, "If I'm going to embark on mastering a set of rules that's fairly 'realistic' with a host of modular options, why not go whole hog with GURPS?" Savage Worlds doesn't have the depth of GURPS or even BRP, but I enjoy the system very much and feel like I could do a lot with it. It would certainly dictate that the majority of the games I run for the foreseeable future would be "FAST! FURIOUS! FUN!" affairs. And I could do with a bit of that after a couple years of running mostly cosmic horror. (Although I am tempted to do a Two-Fisted Tales/Realms of Cthulhu mash-up to run the pulpiest Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign ever seen.)

Art by Daniel Irizarri Oquendo
Savage Worlds would also give me an excuse to start using miniatures in my RPG gaming more often--although that's a whole 'nother barrel of ambivalence I haven't really discussed!
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