Monday, June 8, 2020

When it stops being a game

This is a bitching and moaning post, but it does have a point to make about gaming in general, I hope, so please bear with me.

Recently, one of the players in the big AD&D game I take part in on wanted to start a new game of cowboys vs zombies using the Star Frontiers rules for the game. Since this is basically what I did with Caverns & Cowboys, I was definitely on board to see what he'd done with the rules.

And I wasn't disappointed there. He doesn't have magic as a player option, but a few of his ideas for skill choices seem potentially better and simpler than what I'd come up with.

So in the game, all the players are in the cavalry. No option to be anything else, that's the premise of the game. Fine. I knew that going in, I signed up for it. And I also realize this is a playtest for the rules mods. So things change every now and then as issues arise or questions are asked that he can't answer. Fine again.

But my first red flag was when before we'd even really gotten the game off the ground, he was trying to entice him into his "real" game of cowboys vs Lost World. That raised my suspicions that this game I'd already signed up for would maybe not be the best game, but I liked my character and decided to soldier on (yes, pun intended).

Now, the situation is we arrive in a town that no one has returned from for a few weeks and no telegraph either. As soon as we ride into town, zombies attack. My character is Native American and another is half Native, and as soon as they appeared, we agreed IC that they were wendigo. The GM went along with that, and has been calling them that ever since. Hooray for player input being accepted into world building!

But as soon as players started acting like players in an RPG, trying to tactically problem solve like good RPG players, he through both the NPC sergeant and GM dictate ruled that all characters except mine and another (who had been asked to investigate a house on the edge of town) were to line up Civil War style and blast away. No riding around to distract or lead off some of the zombies, no taking cover, nothing allowed by what he told us. Second red flag appears.

Luckily for me and the other player, since we were in the house when the firing line was formed, we were free to run across the street to the saloon where civilians were calling for help from the upstairs window. Inside, we found a couple of zombies. My partner attacked while I checked on the safety of the civilians then returned to help him fight.

This morning, when I logged on, the GM had made a big long post where he just arbitrarily moved everything ahead two combat rounds -- although that was far from clear from the post. Everyone on the firing line was arbitrarily moved back on the sergeant's orders, and my partner and I had just unloaded our guns on the two zombies in the saloon to minimal effect -- my partner missed with everything and I only hit once (although when I checked the die roller, actually he'd rolled that I hit with three of my five remaining shots in my six-shooter).

And only now, AFTER he decided to do this, is he asking for us to post our actions two or three moves in advance. Apparently, he'd forgotten how crappily beginning characters fight in Star Frontiers, and how little damage 2d10 or 3d10 bullets do to zombies that have on average around 45 Stamina points. And there are a crap ton of zombies moving in. And he's not letting most of the players do anything other than fire and reload. So, third red flag on the field.

I think it might be telling that since this morning, the only person to post besides myself complaining about this is a new guy who just rolled up a character. I think the other players might also have sensed this is not going to be the cool game we hoped it would be.

I'm usually one for letting novice game masters have some slack, and having run play tests, I realize the rules can and should change to reflect issues that crop up. But the lack of agency he's allowing most of the players makes me think that this isn't a game so much as a novel he wishes he was writing. And that makes me consider quitting the game. Because at that point, it isn't a game anymore.

I'll give it a few more days. See what he says, and what the other players do. But I think this brief interesting idea for a game may have just gone off to Boot Hill.


  1. “Boot Hill“ would probably be a better system for cowboys versus zombies (or cowboys versus anything). You can choose to fault the GM or you can fault the system, but I’d probably lay my blame at the feet of Star’s a problematic system in a lot of ways.

    (GM gets some blame, of course, for choosing SF as the base system)

    Hmm...while I’m not a big zombie guy, I can definitely see some ways BH would be a great system for CvZ. Maybe I need to write that up!
    : )

  2. "He's been working on a Railroad,
    All the live long day!
    You've been playing in a Railroad,
    Just to pass the time away!"

  3. There's also the Cowboys and Xenomorphs supplement for Mongoose Traveller. That system can definitely model bullets taking characters down fast.