Friday, October 26, 2012

Dispatches From a Would-Be Monogameist, Part the First

As I indicated in my latest campaign wrap-up post, my quest for a system to master goes on. In this post I'm going to talk a bit more about my impressions of GURPS and another system I'm now taking for a test drive, Savage Worlds. But I'm also finding, as I move forward, that my old gamer ADD is kicking in. One of my long-suffering players, Jen, suggested that I might not be cut out for the life of a "monogameist," my new favorite term. So, if you'll indulge me, I'm going to muse on that point a bit as well in a follow-up post.

But first to system comparisons.

My winter reading list.
Okay, so that's obviously a funny-cuz-its-true joke image, but it also touches on what I like most and least about GURPS. I adore the depth of the system, particularly in its Fourth Edition incarnation. Third Edition suffered from rules bloat, with inconsistent spot rules spread out over multiple sourcebooks and compendia. But nearly a decade after it came out, Fourth Edition continues to do an admirable job of sticking to the rules presented in its two-volume Basic Set; supplements introduce mostly riffs or variations on existing rules rather than totally new concepts. Even so, that still makes for a pretty deep back catalog of a rather dense reading list. Steve Jackson Games' switch to PDF-based publishing has only added to that depth with a host of mini-supplements, all chock full of great ideas crying out to be read.

The strength of GURPS is its flexibility, the ability to toggle options on and off. My last campaign was firmly in the Cinematic camp in part to simplify things for myself and my players. Even then, though, I ran into my main issue with GURPS: I feel that it really helps, as a GM, to know about all available options in order to determine what or what not to include. For example, even in the course of the short, six-session campaign, I found myself on several occasions announcing to the group that I'd be implementing or jettisoning a particular rule.

This is not a bad thing, objectively speaking, and really it's to be expected- it's part of the quest for system mastery, after all. In due time, the master GM inevitably acquaints themself with all (or at least most) of the rules and can toggle things off and on at will. But I'm questioning my ability to get to that point. It's a lot of reading, a lot of memorization, a lot of trial and error over the course of regular play. The lure of other systems (as I'll discuss in a follow-up post), the question of the time involved in mastering a system as dense as GURPS...I'm not sure if I can navigate those treacherous shoals.

And so we come to Savage Worlds.

Interestingly, I seem to not be the only one to look to Savage Worlds in place of GURPS. There are several pros that make Savage Worlds an attractive choice for system mastery. First off, I have to say that Savage Worlds may just boast the most active and helpful fan community of any RPG I've yet seen. There are Savage Worlds conversions for nearly anything you can think of, and if it hasn't been covered already, you can just hop on the Pinnacle Entertainment Group forums and start up a big, friendly brainstorming session. GURPS' own forums are also open to questions and have proven helpful in my moments of confusion over various system arcana, but they also seem a bit...I don't know. Stagnant isn't the word, but it's like that linked article says: Savage Worlds seems like a system on the grow, whereas GURPS seems to have given in to an attitude of retrenchment and service to a small fan base. Put it this way: I poked around online for Rifts conversion materials (always my litmus test for a new, universal system); I found a few leads for GURPS but was left with lots of work to do on my own, whereas with a couple emails I was able to secure a Savage Worlds conversion that encompassed nearly everything I needed, a true first.

The other element that attracts me to Savage Worlds is its simplicity, particularly as it relates to game prep. One of the reasons there are so many SW conversions of other games is that it's so damn easy to throw together a stat block for the game or just monkey around with the rules without fear of causing catastrophic meltdown. I'm taking the rules for a spin with a couple old buddies via a Google+ game of my Rifts:2112 setting, and prepping the first adventure was simplicity itself. I've run a couple SW games in the past, and even as a novice, I found actual play to flow just as smoothly. This is a not inconsiderable point in Savage Worlds' favor.

I also have to admit that I kind of like Savage Worlds' gimmicky (for lack of a better word) elements: the playing cards, the tokens, the miniatures, the Adventure Deck. I'm also always a bit more predisposed to liking a system that uses most or all of the polyhedrals; I appreciate GURPS trying to be accommodating by using only the classic six-sider, but I've been a dice nerd since my first session of D&D.

So am I totally sold on Savage Worlds? No, I'm not. What SW gains in simplicity and ease of prep and play, it obviously loses in flexibility. It will never be the full toolkit that GURPS is, either for character generation or world building. And flexibility is something both I and my players enjoy. Savage Worlds also has its own built-in "prejudices" of game reality. If GURPS tends towards granular and "realistic" (even in Cinematic mode), Savage Worlds tends towards a sort of mid-level cinematic - not terribly over-the-top, but not realistic, either. Sort of an Indiana Jones-level reality. This necessarily dictates the types of campaigns one thinks to run with the system. Whether this is more of a theoretical problem (after all, most gaming genres fall within that "mid-level cinematic" range by default) remains to be seen.
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