Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A Novel form of Exploration

Usually when we think of exploration in RPGs, we're talking about one of three things: exploration of the imagined game world (dungeons, wilderness, settled lands); exploration of character (role play); exploration of the rule systems (optimization/min-maxing, rules lawyering). 

My friend Jeremy, over the past few years, has been embarked on a novel form of RPG exploration. He's exploring varieties of rule sets. Now I know he's not the first person to ever do something like this, but I call it novel mostly because it's a form of game exploration that we don't often discuss.

I remember when he first pitched the idea to me. He wanted to run lots of impromptu pick up games, each time using a different rule set in a different setting (or sometimes the same setting, with characters transferred over to the new system). I remember giving him some pointers on what I thought he would need to do to make the idea work. I don't remember exactly what I said to him, but things like having pregen PCs to pick up and play was definitely one of them. 

Over the past few years, he's run all sorts of rule sets. His preference for games runs towards the grimdark, so sometimes the games feel pretty much the same regardless of the rules we're using. But we have been able to try out lots of those games that we've looked at but figured we might never play. 

I haven't really been into it much lately though, but to be honest I was not super fond of the idea when Jeremy pitched it. While getting to try all these games sounds good, my gaming time is limited. And it kinda sucks to always have to make (or select) new characters, figure out how things work in an unfamiliar game (both rules mechanics wise and setting wise), and to always be starting at level 1 over and over again (something I'm pretty sure I warned him against doing that he didn't heed). 

I'm not posting this to criticize Jeremy or his methods. I do think what he's doing is interesting. But it is also a bit frustrating that we never get to play a rule set long enough to really get a feel for it. We also don't get to run characters long enough to get a feel for them, either. And sometimes the games just feel a bit pointless. Especially in systems that are more story-game influenced and advancement is arbitrary or keyed to number of sessions played. 

Without a solid game-driving objective (like XP for GP, or even XP for combat), and without enough game sessions to figure out who our characters are or what in-universe goals we might want to be accomplishing, the sessions sometimes feel either rudderless or railroady. To be clear, Jeremy isn't railroading us, but it can feel like it when we know so little about the settings. 

And now I'm being negative again. Honestly, I didn't start this post with the intent to criticize what Jeremy's doing or how he's doing it. Jeremy if you're reading, sorry!

So, getting back to the idea at hand: Lots of one shots or mini campaigns, each with a different rule set and different characters. 

It's kinda fun for a side campaign. I've always got more character ideas that I can come up with. We do get to try lots of systems. It's interesting to see different ideas for RPGs put into practice. And it can help identify interesting game mechanics or stylistic choices that I might want to borrow (or to avoid at all costs!). 

But the down side, as I've mentioned, is that these Baskin Robbins sample spoon games don't satisfy the way a Thanksgiving Feast ongoing campaign does.


  1. I don't think your post is particularly negative (though I'm not Jeremy) are naming some valid criticism of this particular experiment. Your friend DOES have an interesting idea, but his method DOES have a critical flaw (that you've pointed out): most RPGs require a good chunk of time to explore their rule sets.

    ESPECIALLY when discussing an RPG that only have specific content "opening" with extended play. A D&D campaign that never gets beyond 2nd or 3rd level is going to miss out on a LOT of content: more powerful magic, more challenging monsters, etc. Not every RPG is like that (Call of Cthulhu or Over the Edge, for example)...but for others (like Pendragon) it is absolutely imperative that the game be play "long-term" to understand its full mechanisms.

    Still, not a terrible idea.

  2. We're actually going to do something like this after we temporarily hiatus our B/X game: I am going to run three one-shots of different systems (FAR TREK, WILD WEST CINEMA, and ICONS) and the group will then decide which of the three we will try a campaign with.

    1. That sounds reasonable. Try several, see which people like the most. Let me know how it goes.