Friday, 7 January 2011

Size matters / class war

How big should a ruleset be? At Warhammer 39,999 we have a poll to respond to with our choice of most important stat, but for me it's better to ask which stat is least important. As I see it, the 40K ruleset is bloated and often nonsensical.

When GW reworked Epic in the late '90s they simplified enough that I no longer recognised the game and walked away. Now I recognise that what they did was genius, or a step towards it. Today at the Statecraft blog Greg Christopher reports finding an elegant solution that gives more warfare with less. This is surely the point.

Games are being worked up all over the place. Johnathan at Ostensible Cat says get stuck in and I agree. But here we probably part ways. If we're talking Old School Renaissance a lot of the work is done. If you're paying homage to D&D, and openly, you forego escape velocity - you're in orbit around the original. That's good too, although how good is a matter of very much debate, as seen in an exasperated post at ChicagoWiz's RPG Blog. (Thanks to Tim Brannan at The Other Side for the link.)

You need to know what you want, and whether others think, or can think, or should think, the same way. The world changes; intentions may be best made clear.

Take classes. For those new to this, these are character types, whether fighter, magic-user, cleric. There's discussion out there on how many are needed. If you want to follow too, I'd recommend starting with this post at Barking Alien, this on magic use especially at Ostensible Cat and this on a science fantasy system at ix.

Let's run with this a moment. I put my view most fully at Barking Alien. I support Johnathan's most recent suggestion of going right down to one class only and then building the specific character you want from there. It's much less OSR, but it is more analogue, which is surely also good? Or is the digital dream retro?

The way I see it, classes are too absolute to be true for most standard settings - if not all - but they're especially odd in much sci-fi. Based on our current expectations of genetics and nanotech, an individual could be 'upgraded' over a campaign in physique, processing power and knowledge. Why not by more than enough to become something new again? This individual could cross or bridge classes in a single career.

Fine. But there's more. When D&D appeared, more of the players had the expectation of a job for life. Perhaps that explains some of the rigidity? When 40K appeared pen and paper roleplaying was still the cool kid. Perhaps that shows how far we've come. Each edition staggers on while rearranging the weight of the baggage.

All rulesets once started from zero. An essence was found and built around. The mechanics added step by step changed the character of the game and the way it would be played: the mechanics change the the way the players see a game and react to it. The successful games were probably the ones that reflected the real world enough to be understood, but offered enough to be exotic. But that becomes clear later.

The game as played can be very different than the game as designed. At The Tao of D&D the point was recently stressed, and in strong language.

A mechanic is a digital thing. It is something in itself whether it represents one thing, one hundred things or nothing at all. However - and this is a big one - the lack of a mechanic is as infinite as our imaginations and capacity to communicate. In designing a game we pave over the infinity and fence the players into our way of thinking. If you build a city, remember to leave some space for the trees.

If the players think like us, great. If they think differently, they may not pick it up at all, or not play a second time. We might change them, and shape the course of their lives. They might be happily playing the same game they played as teenagers in their thirties or forties and beyond. They agree to this - in theory, because they carry on - and the relationship can be happy and fruitful. This is the OSR. This is 40K too.

But remember - infinity is waiting, and calling as infinity does. It's our true home.


Cyborg Trucker said...

Not knowing how long everyone who will respond to this has been playing 40K I'll give a brief opinion of 40K since 1987 when I started.

1st ed. - A lot of rules, especially to a kid of 13 years first getting into war gaming, BUT if I were to play 54mm Inquisitor I would do it using these rules and 28mm figures. I think it lends well to miniature roleplaying.
2nd ed - Things kind of got better with learning the rules as they were streamlined for the first time but it becoming "Herohammer" sucked. It was like the cast of any episode of original Star Trek. Those with names will live and all else is gonna die! Usually to the guys with names.
3rd ed - Streamlined to the point it should have been called "Blah-Hammer". The box the set came in had more flavor. The codexs soon helped to fix that a bit.
4th ed - Didn't actually play much. So I really don't have that much of an opinion to generate.
5th ed. - I like it. Right till I have to deal with...
A) Wound Allocation. Not cause it slows down the game but because not a lot of people even remember the rule and when brought up start to groan or piss and moan. "Also the whole your 2 plasma blots that hit and wounded, yeah those hit the same guy." Bullshit!
B) Close Combat. Maybe I'm a small majority but CC resolution feels overly complicated. I mean
I get how to figure out who wins, its the "Did I run them down and all the other crap." Maybe with more play it would be less confusing. But it feels klunky to me.
I really like things like Ramming, Running and Going to ground. I'd just like to see a less klunky Close Combat, and I actually like Area Terrain and still use it in combination with LOS. (i.e. My unit is on a piece of green felt with some tree bases on it. Guys you can see get a cover save. Guys actually behind trees out of sight can't be targeted.)

I've actually tried making wargames and I know how hard it is so I'm not complaining. I just think some things could be done differently.

Cronickain said...

Points on D&D.

D&D - Very interesting idea. I still argue that Elf is not a class. I liked the fact that the mechanics were taken from the miniatures game. It made the game easy to run Gauntlet style. Very basic story arcs offered in most (not all) modules). What's funny about D&D is that there are still some of the modules being played today that were OK but not great but that people seem to really like for the sheer OSR factor - Lizard King is a good example. There are great ones like Isle of Dread and Keep on the Borderland.

AD&D - Good attempt at fixing what was broken in D&D. I like the fact that they added races and refined class to more ridged structure. The disagreement between Gygax and Arenson forced the split on AD&D 2nd Edition and Dangerous Journeys. The creation of the many game worlds was the high point of the AD&D rules. This version offered a lot of stand-alone modules that gave good story arcs.

AD&D 2nd Edition - This edition had monsters and then offered even more monsters. The adventure modules offered for this edition were grand sweeping campaign arcs that allowed players to take part in campaigns based around fantasy novels written by some of the greats of fantasy writing such as Greenwood and Salvatore.

AD&D Skills and Powers - AD&D 2nd Edition meets Gurps. This version was pretty cool and had MANY opportunities for tweaking the game by allowing players to have song mages or wildland fighters.

D&D 3.0 - Innovative. This version really brought a good amount of gamers back to D&D Core. Although lacking in some rules this version was a great concept of 'you can do anything'. WOTCs support for modules and freebies was amazing.

D&D 3.5 - Improved an already great system IMHO.

Pathfinder - Fixed Grapple and streamlined the skills. The PCs are more powerful but the monsters are balanced to give the players a good account. I particularly enjoy Pathfinder and am running several games using the system albeit mostly in Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft.

D&D 4th - Say what you want about this MMORPG return to paper game but WOTC knows how to market! I was speaking with some guys about this at the FLGS near me a few weeks ago and not only did they make some great arguments against the common naysaying of 'you cannot customize it' they did a good job brining me over to their side.

In 4th ed they really did a good job marketing. The system is VERY streamlined and characters can choose from different paths. Now what converting this to an MMORPG did though IMHO is took away from some of the creativity. What I mean by this is that the guys I spoke with said that 'role playing is a combat game'. OK, I disagree with this strongly though combat is definitely a defining factor in a game it is not 'the' reason to role-play. People really role play to play a character and experience the world from the character's viewpoint. Some want to kill monsters and that's cool but they still want to do it with their character. So yeah with all of the books there are lots of combinations to choose from but it becomes difficult to really multiclass or even to dip in other classes without having serious penalties to your character because most abilities revolve around class and race and do not cross races or classes. There is so much support for 4th edition though that I think that it will do very well despite the faults.

@ Cyborg - I am a game designer and I can tell you it is very tricky but rewarding experience. You will never make everyone happy (nor should you want to) but you can set about really giving some great ideas to others through your books. Things can always be done differently. House rules?

Von said...

@ArmChairGeneral - I think your remark to Cyborg makes a nice coda to your thoughts on D&D 4th. From what I can tell - having never played D&D, barring the computer games that are based on it, but having owned two editions of the rules - it's very much written for the roleplaying-as-combat-exercise types, and to an extent always has been. I certainly think roleplaying outside your character's race/class/game mechanics has a place in D&D, but it's almost bolted on to the actual rules (see also: Charisma is a dump stat) which always seem to be indifferent towards the 'armchair theatre' side of roleplaying. Your thoughts?

Cronickain said...

I think you are spot on. I also think that may be why people who want to do more impromptu theatre deviate toward games like Seven Seas and world of darkness. I like dnd for the combat stuff but we really do more of the roleplay (check out podcasts of games on my blog) sans rules. They have diplomacy checks and sense motive but most dms will want to see at least a small effort at the player acting like their character because that is what gygax wrote rpgs for.

Porky said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. I enjoyed them as reads and learnt new things too. The discussions of 40K and D&D histories are superb supplements to the article and give us plenty to chew over.

@ Cyborg Trucker - My thoughts are very much like yours. In defence of second edition, I'd describe it as an ordering of the sprawling riches of first edition (Rogue Trader). My feeling is that if the emphasis had been on spreading the customisability around more, instead of loading it on characters, the game would have been even better. Fourth was an evolution of third, and fifth of that. Fifth seems to have brought new players into the hobby, and brought back, as far as I can tell, many players of earlier editions. I agree close combat is odd, but more in the basics; I also like going to ground especially, if only for being an extra option.

@ ArmChairGeneral - That seems to me a good summary of the scope of D&D, and like Cyborg Trucker's is a good starting point for anyone struggling to make sense of it all. I'm with you in general when it comes to the nature of roleplaying - combat is a greater or lesser part, but the playing of a role is central, and that's always been taken to mean the playing of a character. Of course, within that understanding, different systems may play up different aspects, such as combat, as you mention in your reply to Von. As the post itself suggests, I feel the limitations of class are less than satisfactory. I like that you have an open mind about fourth, and you recognise that not everyone necessarily can or should be happy.

@ Von - I agree with you too. As I wrote in my reply to ArmChairGeneral, roleplaying does suggest playing a character, but from a given system we may expect more or less of the various elements in the mix, as with the emphasis on combat in D&D.