Friday, October 26, 2012

Dispatches From a Would-Be Monogameist, Part the Second

In my first part to this post, I touched on doubts creeping in around my quest for system mastery. That it seemed my old enemy, Gamer ADD, was rearing its ugly head again. As for that: even when I first started thinking about mastering a system, it was never my intention to abandon all the other games on my shelf, or try to cludge them into the One System to Rule Them All. I'm a backer for the Kickstarter reprint of "Horror on the Orient Express" for Call of Cthulhu, and when that long-anticipated campaign lands on my doorstep (hopefully) sometime next August, you can bet I'll be running it with the system it's designed for. To do otherwise would feel like doing the adventure a disservice, somehow. Likewise, games like Pendragon or Burning Wheel are very self-consciously constructed systems that would quite simply cease to be what made them themselves if converted to another game (but yes, there is a "Savage Pendragon" conversion out there!).

I guess what I'm wondering now is if my quest for system mastery is already doomed to failure. Because I'm finding it hard to focus long enough to set those other, irreplaceable systems aside for even a short period of time. Because I love the quirks and idiosynracies of different systems, even the ones that could port over without losing their core essence. I read this brilliant post that integrates the Lawful-Chaotic alignment duality of Basic D&D and it makes me want to bust out some B/X dungeon crawl action. Ooh! There's a Lovecraftian horror-fantasy setting out for Pathfinder? Maybe it's time to dip my toe in the waters of that system; I like Paizo as a company, I like the solid thickness of the Pathfinder books and the loss-leader price on the Beginner Box... It's not just the setting or the genre, it's the idea of the system - yes, I could run a Classic D&D dungeon-crawl campaign with GURPS (Dungeon Fantasy) or Savage Worlds, and I could certainly adapt Shadows Over Vathak to any system of my choosing. But there's an undeniable pull to pairing setting/genre with the system it was written for.

At any rate, those distractions are culled just from examples of blog posts I read today. And I've made a point of un-following the blogs that tend to focus exclusively on flogging the latest available products in order to minimize the "ooh shiny" reflex, but even then I just can't get away from the siren call of other systems it seems.

Then again, maybe I'm just falling back into old patterns? Maybe the idea of committing to a single system just feels alien to me, so I go back to what's comfortable. Can I really pull of the monogameist lifestyle, or am I condemned to have a wandering eye the rest of my days?


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.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

[Campaign Analysis] GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol


A week before my unscheduled life interruption, I wrapped up a short six-session campaign, the retro sci-fi Tales of the Solar Patrol, based on the PDF-only setting of the same name. The system was GURPS, handily the same system the setting is written for, and was part of my mission to find a generic system I felt comfortable with devoting the time required for mastery. Here, then, are my thoughts on the campaign in particular and how it ran with GURPS, the red-headed stepchild of my gaming collection.

As I was preparing to run a new campaign for the group, I decided to try something new - I put the issue to a vote. I knew I was going to run something with GURPS, but I was having trouble narrowing down the choices. So I drafted up a list of a half-dozen choices, each with a few sentences of description, and emailed my players, asking them to pick a primary choice (worth two votes) and a secondary choice (worth one vote). I was surprised by the results. My personal favorite (a campaign set in Ken Hite's "Day After Ragnarok" setting) garnered no votes and Solar Patrol, a setting I've been wanting to run since it came out a few years back but had kind of assumed no one wanted to play, emerged a clear winner. This despite the fact that we've never been much for sci-fi gaming and one person who voted for it had even stated on a previous occasion that she was adamantly uninterested in the genre.

I really enjoyed giving my players a hand in choosing the campaign, but one issue did emerge over the ensuing sessions: the player who had not voted for the campaign was not very engaged with the game events. Little wonder, as there was obviously no interest from the get-go. For future voting rounds, I'm going to allow for each player to nominate a candidate for veto along with primary/secondary votes. I'm not sure if this player would have vetoed Solar Patrol (it's not like he hated the concept), but the veto will be there as both a device of empowerment for the players and a sort of moral parachute for me - if a player doesn't vote for the winning campaign but didn't veto it either, they don't have much right to sulk about it, I'd think. Of course, the veto might also ensure a sort of "lowest common denominator" effect, but we'll see if that turns out to be problem and deal with it accordingly.

As for the campaign, I thought it went really well. I'd envisioned it as a short-form game from the beginning - there's only so much you can do with a bunch of cadets before it either gets formulaic or the campaign morphs into something else entirely. This was the first time in a while where I ran entirely home-brewed adventures, and that was a lot of fun. I particularly took advantage of the flexibility offered by running my own stuff by making adjustments and changes on the fly, adapting to player actions and questions as they came up, introducing setting elements and NPCs as appropriate. The most memorable session was probably a free-form unescorted romp through Venusport, the setting's own "wretched hive of scum and villainy", that had me juggling four separate plot threads as each of the four players went off in different directions and got in varying degrees of trouble, ranging from minor (hooking up with a fellow cadet in the back of a seedy bar) to major (getting kidnapped by a local smuggler syndicate). Because it was a short-form campaign, I also felt free to totally let go and make major changes to the setting as the campaign unfolded (wiping out most of the Solar Patrol and launching the Second Solar War, for example). And it all ended with the android PC detonating her atomic core to kill the bad guy and save the world, showing everyone that robots can be heroes too.

It was kind of ironic that I ended up running Solar Patrol with the system intended. The PDF is mostly background and would port very easily to other systems, and I'd considered several over the years. So how did it run with GURPS? My answer would be that it ran well, but with a couple caveats. I ran the campaign with several of the system's Cinematic rules in place, and that made things go very smoothly for the most part. I still would not be ready to run a highly "realistic" GURPS campaign with lots of options switched on. In order to simplify character creation (since the group consisted of players with zero to marginal familiarity with the system), I had everyone write up a description of their characters, then I drafted the actual character sheets and handed them out at the first session. (This was made much easier by the fact that Solar Patrol includes handy templates to speed up character creation.) The players picked things up quickly and did a good job of integrating their Advantages and Disadvantages into play, something I always worry about, since GURPS characters can have quite a laundry list of Ads and Disads. I particularly appreciated the flexibility of the system in translating the players' qualitative descriptions into game stats. (One player, for example, wanted to have a type of ridiculous luck that always came at the expense of major personal injury, something not covered directly by the rules but easily adaptable.)

On the other hand, even with simplified character creation and cinematic rules in effect, GURPS is still GURPS - granular, detailed, and intricate. Forgetting even a single rule can have dramatic effects on how the system plays. For example, during one of the first sessions I ran a "combat crash course" for the group by pitting the PC cadets against each other in non-lethal boffer combat. Thanks to me forgetting a couple rules, what should have been a quick, simple combat turned into a brutal slugfest both in-game and at the table. GURPS doesn't just reward system mastery, it very nearly requires it. Certainly, the more you know the system, the more you can get out of it. This is an admirable quality once you get to a certain point, but that learning curve can be brutal.

So I'm setting GURPS aside for now and moving on to another candidate. This was my plan all along (unless and until I get a home run candidate), but I thought I was going to try another GURPS campaign before I moved on so that I could dig down into the system a bit more. But after my brush with death, I've re-evaluated and have decided to get going with another system and see if it's maybe a bit better fit. More on that in a forthcoming post, I'm sure. In the meantime, I haven't refuted GURPS or sworn off it for a year and a day or anything, and in the end I may well return to it as my choice of system to master - but I've got to shop around a little before I make that decision.

Update: Peter Dell'Orto of the always-excellent Dungeon Fantasy blog has posted some thoughts in response to this post.
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