Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Personal Gaming Epiphany for 2010

While putting yesterday's post together I realized I needed to share one of my realizations that  really only came about this year. 
I realized a while back that different games had the "fun" in them distributed differently. When I was running 3rd edition D&D most of my fun as the DM came in the prep work while the actual playing of the game was kind of a chore a lot of the time. Call it 75-25 in favor of prep.

When I ran D20 Star Wars it was about 50-50 as the players really broke out of their box and had fun with it.

With most Super Hero RPG's it's been about 50-50 as it's fun to design villains and plots and it's fun to see what the PC's do with those. It's a strong 50-50

Then I finally got to run a Savage Worlds campaign and it went to 25-75 and it was a revelation - prep was very light and was mainly the "good parts" - characters and plots - without a lot of mechanical grind. Even combat, usually the most complicated part of a typical RPG, plays very quickly and is not the time sink that it is in almost every other game.

Then I went to D&D 4 and I found the same thing. I had heard that prep was easier with with 4E but I didn't see how until I had actually run a few sessions and designed a campaign. Lessening both the prep time and complication for the DM combined with smoothing out combat and task resolution makes the game much more fun to play and much more rewarding. This has been a huge revelation for me in 2010 and has revitalized my interest in maintaining multiple campaigns in a big way. It's the main reason 4E has become the main game for me when it comes to actual playing time.

The funny thing is that I then discovered the same thing with the Basic D&D campaign. It's easy to prep for and easy to run as combat is simple and it leaves a fair amount up to the DM by leaving out a skill system. I know this feature is a part of the old-school manifesto but it's worth testifying - it does exist and it is real. It encourages a more fast and loose playstyle that fits well with the uncomplicated combat system. Which is the other "feature" of old-school D&D - combat is over in a hurry, at least at low levels.

I have discovered that having fast-playing combat rounds makes a big difference. With Basic D&D you really only have a few options and no multiple attacks, so each player's turn goes quickly which means each round goes quickly. Savage Worlds has a similar speed because the action system is simple and clear and also because most opponents are mooks - one wound puts them down and out of combat, leaving the climactic parts of the fight to a few "wild cards" who can take multiple wounds. D&D 4E took a page from this with the minion rules where one hit point puts them out of the fight. Another part of this is systems that use opposed rolls  where a combatant is either in or out of the fight which eliminates the potential grind of chewing through a mass of hit points. Mutants and Masterminds and even d6 Star Wars use a similar kind of system.

Now there is one important difference. with 4E; It does not feature opposed rolls - it embraces a massive hit point system for PC's and for many opponents. Normally that should lead to longer combats and often it does but 4E offsets this with minions and by giving each PC a nice clean action system (similar to Savage Worlds) while also giving them more choices within those rounds. Character-specific At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers combined with a list of maneuvers anyone can do means that each class has many choices during combat but the organization of the power cards means that those choices are easily referenced during play. Combat does take longer than a fight in Basic D&D or Savage Worlds but it's typically more interesting per-round than those games and each player's turn still typically takes less time than in say D&D 3E. Eliminating multiple attacks per round made a huge difference there.

Now I'm a crunch guy going way back. I mapped out many a dungeon on graph paper way back when. I built vehicles for GURPS. I built ships and tanks and guns using Fire, Fusion, and Steel for both Traveller New Era and Traveller 4. I still have hundreds of variant mech designs for Mechwarrior and Battletech campaigns. I still have Champions Heros and Villains from 25 years ago (complete with magic-marker costume designs) because I might need them again some day. I've been playing rules-heavy simulationist tactical RPG's for 30 years where facing, cover, armor values, penetrations values, and fractional accounting all mattered and I've had a ton of fun with them. But it has gotten harder over the years to work in those games as jobs and kids and girlfriends or wives have soaked up a larger fraction of my time. Software tools have made some of that easier to do, from mapping software to spreadsheets but it's still an issue of prep time vs. play time. Plus, when a fair chunk of your game prep requires a spreadsheet, then it's starting to look suspiciously like work instead of fun.
A slight digression: I've owned and played SFB and ASL for many years. They are massive, heavily detailed boardgames intended to simulate reality in exhausting detail. It can take an hour or more to resolve one turn. I spent many years playing them and I still have a pile of stuff for them in my garage but I haven't played either one in 10 years. It takes a lot of time to learn the rules, a lot of time to set up a scenario, and a lot of time to play the game even after you get past the learning stage. I have also found that a lot of times winning the game comes down to who can find a situation where they know the rules better than the opponent and can take advantage of it - it turns into a game of "gotcha" won when a player discovers he can pull obscure rule A212.51 where Russian conscripts in a wooden building hex in december of 1941 or 42 will refuse to fire at an opponent more than 2 hexes away as they are busy setting up a still rather than watching for enemy troops. It's not really tied to player skill, it's tied to player memorization capability.

As boardgames got more and more complicated a "light game" movement started in the 90's and has led to the Euro Games revolution and the popularity they enjoy now. Wargames finally saw some of this especially in the last 5 years with Command and Colors and Combat Commander and similar games that cover traditional wargame subjects but use things like block pieces and cards for combat resolution and to handle details rather than 500 pages of rules and a bunch of tables. The level of historical results tends to be similar to the older way of doing things but a turn takes 5 minutes instead of an hour. There are also usually only 5-10 pages of rules to learn, lowering the barrier to entry for teaching the game. Both of these are huge wins and make for a much better game overall. There is a place for a game with 5,000 1/2 inch counters on an 8' X 6' map of the Eastern Front but it's not something you can set up and finish in an evening. With the newer boardgame designs I can and isn't that why we buy games? To play them and have fun? Preferably with friends and not alone in a basement trying to refight D-Day solo because no one else wants to learn the rules or put up with kids and cats knocking over stacks of counters? It's a design revolution and it's a good one in just about every way.

RPG's are undergoing a similar change as what board wargames have been doing for the last 5 years. Sure, there will still be some old-school rules-heavy unique subsystem games - I wouldn't have it any other way. But more and more I think you will see one of two approaches:

1) The rules light fast to play and fun to play systems like Savage Worlds where speed of play trumps realism. There is room here for debate over how much detail to include vs. how much to skip to streamline play. The main advantage here is that you can get a lot more done in an evening of play than you can with an older more detailed ruleset. Comparing original flavor Deadlands to SW Deadlands Reloaded there is much less detail in the newer version and fewer unique mechanics for different characters which is a loss, but combat and task resolution is so much quicker in play now that a group can move through a lot more adventure in a set period of time than they could  in the old one. Combat is still interesting and exciting but it takes a tenth of the time it used to. Plus with less focus on details it encourages players to come up with interesting actions rather than looking up the rules for doing everything and encourages DM's to do the same - less book-flipping at the table is a good thing IMO and it makes a huge difference in how time is spent. Mongoose Traveller is this type of game as are Castles and Crusades and maybe the Cinematic Unisystem. Heck, D&D Basic from 1981 follows much of this philosophy and we didn't really even realize it at the time.

2) The still rules heavy game that still plays more cleanly while retaining interesting options in-game approach that is 4th edition D&D. It's not a "lite" game by any means but there is clearly a "system" here and it's easy to figure out how something should work even if there's not specifically a rule for it. It's a "system" and not "a list of stuff you can do" which is what some previous versions of D&D (and other games) felt like. Presentation is a big thing here too as "powers" and "power cards" are much easier to manage in play than 10 pages of 1st level M-U spells and their descriptions, especially when the insidious character builder automatically sticks the modifiers in right there on the card. I believe Shadowrun 4 moved in this design direction, Hackmaster Basic moves in this direction, and DC Adventures/MnM 3E move in this direction. There is detail in the game but it's applied specifically where it will do the most good and not all over where it will bog down the whole game.

These "new design philosophy" games have made prep quicker and easier than some of the more complicated games of the recent past. They also make it easier and quicker to play without losing much detail and without giving up meaningful choices during play. They are effectively more bang for your limited playing time buck and for those of us who still have dreams of playing like we did back in those summers between school years it's a huge win and a very welcome change in design philosophy. It lets me get more done and have more fun than I have in a long time and to me that's really the point of the whole thing anyway.

I noticed this shift after my first session of Savage Worlds. I saw it again when I broke out Basic D&D and then was pleasantly surprised when going through the 320 page 4E Player's Handbook that "hey, this is really pretty simple". I realized that I was getting a lot more out of each session than I had been when running my 3E games. I'm not trying to run down 3E -I had a lot of fun running it for 9 years - but it's just a different feel. Between the design goals, the mechanics of these newer-style games, and the presentation of them, I feel like there is a real improvement in the way they play vs many games of the past or ones with different design philosophies. I used to come out of game sessions drained, worn-out, ready to go to bed and not wanting to look at the game for a day or two. Now I am energized before, during, and after and kind of sorry when the time comes to stop - there's so much more we can do! My players seem happier too. It makes it a lot easier to run multiple games over a weekend - kind of like when we were 13 and that was normal for us. It's a good thing and I hope it continues for a long time to come.


Jeremy said...

I know exactly what you mean. My original group did some amazing things with 3.0 and 3.5 but after a session and even towards the end OF a session I was just dreading the math, the reference libraries, and the spreadsheets of interactions. A game missed was both a good and a bad.

We don't get to play. But then again we don't have to play!

But right now I go from playing the friday night game to wanting to play the very next day or at the very least continue discussing. Which fuels me right into running my little side game for the family.

And then I continue writing, planning, or thinking about either or both games all through the week. It's been a very long time since a game has raised that level of enduring interest in me.

Blacksteel said...

Yes - the page flipping, the multiple-attacks leading to combat feeling more like a countdown than any kind of exciting thing, and the overhead both in prep and in actually running the game all led to me looking forward to a cancellation sometimes - it felt like a relief. I don't see that anymore and it's a giant win.