Which is the most preferred game in your group? Do you prefer one game over other? One system over other or one edition above all other editions? Or do you just like roleplaying, no matter what set of rules is being used? As long as the story is awesome?
I run a biweekly game of Dark Sun, using AD&D 2nd edition rules. The story takes place around the city of the Shadow-King, Nibeney, and so far it’s been so much fun. I have a good composition of players, some that have played for years while other are just trying out roleplaying for the first time, and I enjoy this game so much.
One night, as we were playing in the community hall, a veteran roleplayer came by our table as the group was taking down a Braxat (not an easy feat, you know) and noticed that we were using the AD&D set of rules. The player scowled and said that he wouldn’t touch AD&D with a ten foot pole with pretty obvious disdain for what we were doing.
And you know what? That got me thinking and wondering if I had any similar prejudices or preferences myself. And of course I do, and I guess that almost all roleplayers do. Why wouldn’t we have preferences, just like car enthusiasts or comic readers?
The Quantum Spergilator’s flux moderator is broken!
Most roleplayers I know have a preferred genre when roleplaying. There are gamers that like fantasy above all else, other players that prefer horror and, of course, those who like modern or science-fiction. Each of these has a set of sub-genres.
I like most of these genres, but I have to admit, hard sci-fi is not my cup of tea. Much as I like to watch Star Trek, I really dislike playing roleplaying games that are loaded with technical jargon that I either don’t understand or have no way of comprehending.
I have played a few hard sci-fi games and enjoyed some of them, but the problem I have with them is that I have a hard time getting into character, since most of the times I don’t fully grasp the setting along with it’s many science-fictional references and terms.
There are however many great hard sci-fi games out there and many roleplayers who like them. Still, we don’t see many gamers argue online about if this or that genre is better suited for roleplaying.
Bleurgh! This system uses novelty dice!
Few years ago I bought the One Ring roleplaying game. I had a hard time finding interested players here in Iceland to try the game out with me, since many I talked to didn’t like that fact that the system used a set of novelty dice, despite that these dice were just a slightly modified set of d6’s and d12’s.
Then Fantasy Flight published their version of Star Wars roleplaying game, laden with all sorts of novelty dice. Many of the same players decided to let their prejudice aside and tried the game, and like it. In fact, liked it a lot.
I admit, I’ve been skeptical towards games that use their own set of dice, since I often feel that this is a way of getting more money from the players. Why use dice that contain some special form of symbols, instead of those dice that are frequently used by other games?
Then again, both of these games are great and offer the players many opportunities to explore vast and great settings. So, why would it matter to me if they use their own set of dice?
Game before system
I think that most roleplayers tend to favor games before system, that is, most players decide first on what kind of game they’d like to play rather than choosing first what kind of system they’d like to play.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since narratives matter more to us as humans, than the way they are told. Just think about how many times you’ve seen, read or heard stories about a young boy/girl coming of age and making a huge difference in his world. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Ender Wiggin, Mulan, Katniss Everdeen, Princess Mononoke, the list goes on.
My point is, narratives are infinite and you can tell the same narrative over and over again, using well known, tried and tested tropes. Therefore many of us chose games before systems. We are deciding along with the other players what kind of narrative we’d like to take part in.
The systems don’t weight as much in our decision. They matter, but they are secondary to our choice of narrative. You can use a d20 system to tell almost any story, just as you can use Chaosium’s BRP, White Wolf’s Storyteller system or Fantasy Flight’s Genesys to tell the same stories.
But playing a D&D game using BRP?
There are of course some games that are so heavily merged with their own system that using other system might feel odd for some players. Perhaps many roleplayers won’t get into the right mood when playing narratives heavily inspired by H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos using Genesys instead of Call of Cthulhu RPG. Or playing a game of D&D’esque fantasy and use a d6 system.
However, there’s nothing that says you can’t and sometimes it’s fun to do something completely different.
The difference between a game and a roleplaying system
I poised an idea for a friend of mine a while ago, one that I had and wanted to run for my group. It involved the lives of a few people, the PCs, and them having to pay of a debt to a Hutt gangster on Nar Shaddaa. After we had discussed the narrative for a while, she asked me: “What system would you prefer for the game? Saga Edition, WEG or Edge of the Empire?”
After briefly debating this, we agreed on using Edge of the Empire, since the system seemed to be most appropriate for my narrative.
A game is the combination of the story, the setting, the players and, of course, the system. The system itself is not the game, it’s you sitting down with your group, collectively telling great stories and using what ever system you prefer to determine the outcome of your characters and antagonists’ actions. The system is therefore merely a tool that you use in your game.
The future has many paths – choose wisely!
I tend to favor games over systems. I don’t mind playing games that use systems that I don’t very much like, as long as the game is to my liking. And I know that there are many roleplayers out there that probably feel the same as my friend, the veteran roleplayer, that stopped by our table one night, players that wouldn’t come near a game because the system being used isn’t to their liking.
However, in my opinion, a good game is a good game, no matter the system. If the narrative is good, the group is made up of great roleplayers and friends, the characters interesting… why would it matter if we roll a d20 or a novelty d6s to see if we hit?
The only true Blood War is the Edition War!
There are few things that I feel as boring and trivial as edition wars. Arguing if this or that edition of D&D is the best is in my opinion a complete waste of time, since it is absolutely a matter of subjectivity and opinion. If you don’t like save or die mechanics, don’t play AD&D, if you don’t like daily powers don’t play 4th edition. Simple as that.
This also applies when arguing if Vampire the Masquerade is better than Vampire the Requiem, what edition of Call of Cthulhu is the best one or if Star Wars D20 is superior to Star Wars Saga Edition. Of course, we all have our opinions and the freedom to express them, but arguing with other players because they don’t feel like us about our favourite edition, says far more about ourselves than those we argue with.
Every edition has its merits… and flaws!
Playing Dark Sun using AD&D 2nd edition rules in a world where you have 3rd, 4th and 5th edition might come across as eccentric and nostalgic. And in fact, it is. But the thing is, even AD&D has its merits as a roleplaying system and, even for all its Thac0, death saves and non-weapon proficiencies, one of which is that combat doesn’t take as long as in younger editions, as in some ways combat in AD&D isn’t as tactical as these later editions.
Setting before edition
I tend to favour settings before editions, because neither game systems nor editions bother me, as long as I’m enjoying the story being told. I know many roleplayers that would never play this or that edition, and this has perhaps been most evident when it comes to 4th edition D&D, and of course everyone is free to their preferences and opinions, but I must admit that I would fear of missing out.
Story above everything else
Playing roleplaying games is a social activity, where players and game master join hands in shared storytelling. The rules come secondary for me. I don’t mind using Thac0, Daily Powers, WoD with fixed target numbers or whatever, because I’m interested in playing interesting characters or introducing settings and stories for my players that I find fun (and hopefully they do too).
For me the story needs to become something more than means to get from one encounter to the next, or an excuse for getting experience points in order to keep advancing my character. A good story is something else, all this and still so much more.
You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”
—Erin Morgenstern, multimedia artist and author
The d4 of a good roleplay narrative
In my opinion there are four sides to a good roleplay narrative. Each must be in balance with the other and each are just a important. For the most parts these are the same as in every other storytelling, and these are good to know, for every roleplayer, is in one way or another a storyteller.
Take part, act and react
We are, both as players and game masters, active participants in the storytelling and we can, by our actions and inactions, have a great impact on how the narrative progresses and evolves.
We need to be proactive, take responsibility for the role we have taken on, and seek out ways to progress the narrative. We also need to be reactive and respond to the actions of the other characters.
I once had a player who only responded to the story in combat, otherwise he simply sat silent and watch the game unfold. He reacted only when his character was addressed personally and took as little part in progressing the story as he could get away with.
I’ve also played with a player who seemed to believe that his characters, no matter what kind they were, were the leaders and the other PCs should always follow his lead, which eventually lead to a fall-out in the group.
Finding the right balance between being proactive and reactive, making sure that each characters gets a moment to shine, to lead and be a follower, to act and react, is not that an easy task, and one I’m constantly looking for, both as player and game master.
Be unpredictable and interesting
Tropes and cliches are used over and over again for a reason, but breaking these are often what really makes things interesting. It’s when things get unusual, non-traditional and unpredictable we straighten in our seats, our eyes widen and we bring forth our favourite dice.
Was the Gold Dragon that sent you on that dangerous quest nothing more than selfish, greedy and evil bastard, bent on claiming as mush gold for himself as possible? Was the vampire that you’ve fought over and over again a lost soul eager to claim his honour again? Is the drow clan blamed for kidnapping the children from the village in fact good aligned worshippers of Eilistraee and willing to help in finding the children?
The story is yours, game masters and players alike, and you don’t need to conform to any other expectations than your own. Sometimes even paladins break their oaths, perhaps because of a loved one, and that alone can make a story a whole lot greater. Even the most evil races and monsters sometimes have good aligned members, with Drizzt Do’Urden being the most obvious example. But that also applies to beholders, mind flayers, liches and even angels (hello there, Asmodeus).
This holds especially true for game masters, since many players know the Monster codices by heart. We need to mix things up every now and then, if for no other reason than to keep the players guessing. Making a ogre that lives under a bridge, struggling to raise his kid ogre as decent ogre being, that levies toll from those who pass over the bridge, but only those who he deems that can afford to lose a few coins, suddenly makes that ogre relatable, real and interesting.
Tension is the key driving force of every story
In every story there’s tension, two or more forces that don’t align, and disturb the status quo. Often these are obvious, evil force fighting a good force, and sometimes it’s hard to discern what is the cause of the tension.
This tension can also be found amongst the player characters. A debate between a member of the Circle of the Crone and a member of Lancae Sanctum can quickly become something more than just a debate, even though both of them are a part of the same coterie. Would a cleric of Kelemvor always look the other way when the other members of her party desecrate and rob the dead and their graves? Why should she be not be less worried for her comrades actions as she would be fighting the undead horde threatening their hometown?
This tension is not only the main driving force of every narrative, but it also offers us so many great opportunities to roleplay and act amongst ourselves. There are so many moral issues for player characters to debate and find a middle ground for, and why let these go to waste?
Appeal to all senses and emotions
I think that most game masters I know know quite well how to paint pictures with words, making their setting come alive, so that I can almost smell, taste, hear, see and feel what it would be like to be in my character’s shoes. This is actually quite important because it helps the players immersion, making it easy to see in their mind’s eye the scene being described.
This is something I encourage my players to do as well. If they have been riding a sweaty horse all day, I assume that their characters smell bad and adjust NPCs’ reactions accordingly. If the characters have been investigating something in the sewers, they should stink. The players often also make these assumptions themselves and act accordingly, which makes the game all the more fun.
But good storytelling also appeals to emotions. We, as human beings, are capable of feeling a whole spectrum of emotions and why shouldn’t the player characters as well? When the party’s fighter dies defending the group, why not use the opportunity and appeal to sorrow? When a coterie member sees her now grown-up kid murdered by another vampire, why shouldn’t she feel enraged? How would an investigator respond learning that one the kids kidnapped by the Order of Silver Twilight was his only son?
By both giving players opportunities to roleplay their characters’ emotions and as a player make the best of these opportunities, your story becomes even deeper, more human and more relatable.
Everybody loves a good story
A good roleplay narrative rises above system and edition. You can tell a good story using any system and any edition, because, just like Romeo & Juliet has been told and retold thousands of times, you can tell a story and adjust it to any setting or game out there.
Keep an open mind towards games, settings and editions. Be critical of narratives. I’ve never met a roleplayer that has said: “The story is boring, but the system/edition/setting is so great I enjoy each session immensely.” I’ve however often met players who have said: “It’s not a system/setting/edition I like, but the story is great and I really enjoy each session, that I don’t mind the system/setting/edition’s flaws.”
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