Tuesday, November 11, 2014

System Matters, but System Familiarity Matters More

Jeremy asked a very good question in my last post about my proposed Gamma World (or Mutant Future, really) crossed with Marvel Comics game.

Why not use the old TSR Marvel RPG (or the 4C clone of it) for the game?

I've played the Marvel RPG a bit.  You remember it, right?  The FASERIP system with the color-coded resolution chart?  Yep, that one.  I've played as a player in it a few times, but not extensively.  And I've never run the game before.  So I'd have some learning curve issues.  Maybe not extensive, but in order to run with that system, I'd at least need to read all the rules and get a better feel for them than what I have now.

In answer to Jeremy, I also said that I think that the game wouldn't be the best fit for what I want the game to do.  What do I want the game to do?  I want the game to be about neo-primitive tribesmen venturing out into the scary, dangerous, irradiated (and worse!) ruined world in search of the fabled ancient technology of the Ones Before, and running into mutated creatures and robots and such, and a lot of the robots and leftover tech would resonate with comic book readers.  Not everything in the world would be "Marvel" stuff, but there would be Sentinels and Doom Bots, you might find a wrist-mounted device that shoots webbing, or find a damnation van with a red octo-skull emblem on it, or a red and gold metal glove that shoots blasts of force, along with all the badders and orlen and spider-goats of normal Gamma World/Mutant Future play.

Marvel RPG is suited for a heroic action game, where villains are up to no good and you the heroes need to stop them.  And the Karma system (both XP and hero points, not to be confused with Ron Edwards's "karma" resolution mechanic, see below) as written enforces a Comics Code Authority style of play in order to advance and improve characters.  Now that could be modified, but then we fall into the trap that Ron Edwards discussed in his (in)famous article, "System Does Matter."

How much work will it be fore me to adapt FASERIP to what I want to run?  What benefit is there to using a super hero RPG to run a semi-supers game in a post-apocalypse version of a super hero universe?

Would it be easier for me to use Mutant Future, which I know well enough by proxy (Labyrinth Lord/Classic D&D are no sweat to run, and I'm plenty familiar with Gamma World)?  Definitely.  Would Mutant Future give me the style of game I want to run?  Definitely.  Would there be some work for me to adapt the game to have more "Marvel Comics" stuff in it?  A little, but it would be less than trying to learn and adapt a less well-known game system.

I agree with Edwards's article to a point.  I think he started off from a mistaken ontological stance regarding RPGs.  The three themes he outlines are there, but there's a lot more crossover in actual gaming and in actual gaming styles than he conceived of 10 years ago.  I'm not sure how strongly he believes in that now, so I won't put words in his mouth, but I think he was off-base a decade ago.  Also, he seems to believe that the system should do all of the heavy lifting for the GM and players.  This may be nice, but it ignores one thing -- all those anecdotal accounts of good GMs who can make any type of game work with their system of choice.  It assumes a priori that the work load of the GMs to make their game of choice "work" must be burdensome, and that they'd have more time to make the game awesome if they had a system in which the heavy lifting had been done.

But then look at my situation right now.  Look at the d20 boom of 15 years ago.  Look at the OSR, coming out with untold variations of D&D in all sorts of niches over the past five years.  Is D&D the best framework to run a space opera game, or a steampunk mystery game, or a post-apocalyptic survival game, or a cowboy gunslinger game, or a wandering hero wuxia game?  No.  There are other games that are tailor made to those genres, and I'm sure many of them do the tropes and settings well.

But D&D, and its variations, have a big leg up on any of those systems.  Familiarity.  Most gamers, although not all, began with D&D in one form or another, or have at least experienced it if it wan't their first game.  It's comfortable.  It's flexible.  It's well-known.  And it can easily be shifted without much effort to a gamist (3E), narrativist (2E) or simulationist (1E) stance while retaining a core of familiar rules and mechanics.

I'd argue that someone who had played and run lots of FASERIP games could easily use it to run this idea of mine, and make it work beautifully.  Not me, however.

System design matters, but it isn't the only factor in the "good gaming" equation.  How familiar everyone, especially the GM, is with the rules counts just as much, or maybe more.


  1. How is 2e narrativist and 1e simulationist? The game mechanics are practically the same. And I'd argue about 1e being simulationist, if by "simulation" we mean "reproducing reality." That's something that GURPS attempts to do, but D&D was never good at simulating anything, I think.

  2. A good question, and here's my answer, which is probably not what you are hoping for.

    2E is NOT a "narrativist" game. 1E is NOT a "simulationist" game. For that matter, 3E is NOT a "gamist" game (although 4E is, but you'll notice I left that out).

    But when you're considering the differences in each:
    1E sure is good at simulating many things. Don't mistake simulation for realism, though. Realism is only one facet of simulationism. Look at all the various tables and subsections within the 1E DMG. Look at all the proscriptions on character building in the PHB. Look at the Gygaxian naturalism of the MM. The game gives you lots of tools to use to simulate a certain fantasy adventure milieu. There's a random harlot table. What is that for, if not to simulate encounters in a seedy part of town? Also, the XP system of some XP for fighting monsters but lots of XP for gathering treasure simulates pulp fantasy adventure tropes in that it drives players to fight when they must but outwit when they can.

    2E has a more narrativist bent, in that the XP system was revised to try to reward playing to type. Clerics get XP for healing the sick and protecting their flock, Thieves get XP for disarming traps and opening locks, along with gathering treasure, M-Us get XP for casting spells to aid the party, Fighters get XP for fighting monsters. The reward system is designed to try to get you to play in character - which if pulled off properly would lead to better narrative. Also, look at the rules about fudging results to match the outcome you desire (1E is more of a let stupid players face the consequences sort of game). Look at the plethora of richly detailed settings which are designed to give you story ideas rather than hard simulation of the world (lots of fluff, not so much crunch).

    3E, on the other hand, was designed to offer players a "balanced" set of options for characters, with lots of open options for customization, yet with a "rules mastery" aspect of trial and error or rules scrutiny to find out which options are useful and which are not. The authors of the game admitted as much publicly. Also, the XP system really only rewards combat, which is where the game mechanics are most heavy.

    None of these systems is purely one or the other, all have aspects of all three of Edwards's aspects of play in them. But each leans closer to one of the nodes than the others in my opinion.

    1. Sorry, just realized I replied to the wrong person. Re-posting here:

      3e could be pretty simulationist in a lot of ways, which was a major complaint from some people. 3.5 really dumbed things down, though, and was the more gamist version

  3. The 1e DMG is also pretty adamant about rewarding playint to types, with the assignment of performance scores (DMG p.86). Quoting: "Clerics who refuse to help and heal or do not remain faithful to their deity, fighters who hang bock from combat or attempt to steal, or fail to boldly lead, magic-users who seek to engage in melee or ignore magic items they could employ in crucial situations, thieves who boldly engage in frontal attacks or refrain from acquisition of an extra bit of treasure when the opportunity presents itself, "cautious" characters who do not pull their own weight - these are all clear examples of a POOR rating. [etc.]" Since you mention the rules should support a type of game (e.g. the Karma of MSH wouldn't be good for your purposes) the same is true for AD&D--all versions. I have ran 1e settings with 2e rules and vice-versa, and things hardly changed; all the cool fluff in the 1e DMG is just that: fluff.
    Care to quote the "rules about fudging results"?

  4. In general I agree that familiarity is important, at least when one is getting older :)
    Seriously, I have started playing 5e, and while I do like the system, the fact that I must throw away some assumptions I have from old editions of (A)D&D means I must devote time to learn anew...something I enjoyed 20 years ago, but with a full-time job and a family (and only so much time allowed to play) I simply can't do that as easily anymore.

  5. Replying to both Antonio and Prof. Oats:

    That's sort of my point. D&D doesn't easily get pigeon-holed into one Edwardsian type or another. But if you prefer to PLAY one type over another, what I'm suggesting is that certain editions of D&D may make your life easier in that regard (and I could be wrong, and I'm not going to be goaded into an argument over a minor point in my post). But if you're familiar enough with any edition, you can make it dance to your tune.

    My friend Dean runs a narrative-heavy, theater-of-the-mind game of 4E, and does it well because he knows 4E well.

    1. Once again, I do a poor job of articulating my thoughts and give completely the wrong impression. Sorry 'bout that

      My comment was meant as more of an aside than an actual counterpoint, which is why I kept it so short. I just saw an opportunity to contrast 3e and 3.5, and I can never pass one of those up, especially when they involve comparing 3e to a previous edition

  6. I don't want to enter into a specific argument on a minor point, but you made a specific statement about 2e rules vs. 1e rules which doesn't seem to be supported by the rules as written. If your comment is based on how you played the games, that's another matter entirely.
    @ProfessorOats: I agree about the 3e vs. 3.5 split; the latter just made worse the less palatable aspects of 3e. When I want to play some d20 D&D, it's always 3e core rules only; it works reasonably well.

    1. Alright, I may have misremembered, or conflated the rules as written with a Dragon article or something (it had been a while since I'd cracked open my 2E books), but I did find a short section on fudging "too difficult" encounters in the 2E DMG, p. 141 (black revised edition) in the Encounters section. I was thinking there was something more explicit, but a quick search didn't find anything more than that.

    2. 2e was mostly an issue of presentation. How you explain the rules, the way they're organized (especially when split across multiple books), etc. can be just as important as the rules themselves. The 2e books downplayed and sometimes outright removed aspects of 1e, sometimes bringing them back in supplements, while emphasizing others. To bring things back to the issue of narrativism, the text often framed the game as an exercise in storytelling, especially if Douglas Niles had any involvement. My first D&D book was a 2e supplement (I was just a kid, and didn't know I needed the core books), and I definitely picked up on that, and it had some influence on my early play

      Editions 1-3 all share a pretty strong core (3e less so), which allows them to look pretty similar in the right light. It's very easy to overlook their differences if you want to (harder with 3.5, which was intent on removing what compatibility with older editions remained, and downright impossible with 4e), which can actually be a pretty big plus