Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Unplayable" RPG's

I've been listening to a podcast that talks about old RPG's and it's been pretty entertaining both with games I know well and games I passed by. I'll talk more about them later but one thing that comes up in some of the conversations is "unplayable". I'm not going to pick on them specifically because I hear it all over the place. The recent listening just brought it to top of mind and I decided to discuss it in a post.

A strong "get off my lawn rant" advisory is now in effect. 

First, let's talk about what people mean when they describe a game this way. To me it really breaks down into two categories:

  • Literally, mechanically unplayable - I mostly hear this from younger gamers describing older games. I suspect it's more "I looked at it and looked too complicated for me to enjoy so I went no further with it" or "I've heard stories about it". I personally have yet to find a game that is literally "unplayable".
  • Complicated to the point that it's not worth playing, especially when there are alternative games available that cover a similar niche - this is far more common and it's how I feel about quite a few games out there. Really, it's more "not as enjoyable" rather than "unplayable". 
I make this distinction because every so often I hear a game dispatched as "unplayable", sometimes with a bonus of sneering attitude to go with it, which happens to be a game I've played or run for an extended period of time. This of course immediately puts the lie to the "unplayable" description. 

Somewhere along the internet's lifespan theoryhammer/theorycrafting became in some people's minds as valid a set of thoughts about a game as actual experience. Someone looks at the math of the game and declares it unworkable. Someone finds a rule with some kind of logic flaw in it and declares the entire game invalid as a result. 

It's bullshit.

RPG's have never been "here's a book - do everything exactly as it is written here." Never. Different people have interpreted things differently, modified rules into something they liked better, and added new rules to cover something they felt was missing or underrepresented. 

A typical response to this from the non-players is something like "well sure if you start changing the rules it works" - no! It probably "worked" just fine before! I'm changing the rules because I think it works better!

Another common cry: "Why should I pay for it if I have to modify the rules to make them work". If that's your attitude you probably shouldn't! In fact if that's your attitude I'm not sure you should be playing RPG's at all! I don't say that to be some kind of snob - I say it because it's a just part of what people do with  these kinds of games!

Let's get into some specifics:

  • Rifts - I regularly hear when the game comes up about how it's "unplayable". I ran a game for over a year, pretty much by the book. Core book plus whatever add-ons struck our fancy. yes, the rules are clunky and sometimes inconsistent. Yes I think the new Savage Worlds version is going to be a much better experience for most people. By no means though is it "unplayable".
  • Shadowrun: one of the things 4th edition SR touted was the new "better" task resolution system that made it much easier to figure the odds of success compared to the older editions where it was "almost unplayable". Seriously? One of the most popular RPG's of the 90's was "almost unplayable". I played in and ran multiple campaigns through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions and we typically thought the system was damned innovative at the time. 
  • Twilight 2000: I was surprised when I ran across "unplayable" applied to this game online last year. When games like Aftermath exist? T2K 1st and 2nd are fairly simple games really. 1E is a percentile skills system not unlike BRP games and 2E simplifies it down from ratings of 1-100 to 1-10. Sure, you'd better like playing with military hardware as that's one of the attractions of the game, but there's nothing particularly complex about either one. Again I have played and run multiple campaigns in both versions so it's completely playable if you're interested.
  • Champions: "Combat takes so long, characters are so complicated, it's just unplayable" - one of the pillars of superhero gaming, something we played a bunch when we were 13 years old and  somehow figured out even though we didn't have the internet to explain things to us is now described by people at times as "unplayable". Please. 
  • GURPS: I actually saw GURPS described as "unplayable" online in the last month. It's not my favorite game anymore but "unplayable"? Sure you have a lot of choices when making a character but once your character is finished the game mechanics are pretty simple. It's 3d6 roll low! For almost everything! I assume this is mostly because it has a bunch of thick hardbacks for rules, despite the fact that you won't be using more than a few of them in most campaigns. 
  • Aftermath: Exhibit A for the classic over-complicated games of the 80's. I own it  - it's playable, it just not much fun IMO. Heck, it has a flowchart to show you how the mechanics work! Actually it has several of them. "Not something I want to play" is not "unplayable.
Even AD&D gets this nowdays - "This game is a mess, how did anyone play this?" - well, we read it, used our brains, and figured it out. 

"Weapon speeds?" - not in first edition.

"Grappling?" - not usually. We used some replacement system form an issue of Dragon.

"Level limits" - sure. Multiclassing was cool.

"AH-HA! So you just ignored the parts of the game that didn't work!" - Pretty much. We still do. There are parts of ICONS that I mostly ignore, and that's a pretty simple very modern system. That doesn't make it a bad game or, god forbid, "unplayable". It means we modify something we already like to make it better in our eyes. Like people do with clothes. Like people do with cars.  Why is this so shocking to some people? Are they under the impression there's a trophy for following the book as written? Have you seen the errata documents for most big RPG books?

Does this really look all that complicated?
Boring, sure, but complicated?

This usually happens though after we have played the game as written a few times.  Not before we ever play a game. Not after we play it once. After 3 or 4 sessions though you have a fair idea of how your group works with a game and what might be better for your group. The games I discuss on this blog are almost always a game I am running, a game I have run in the past, or a game I am about to run - there's a reason for that. I'm not terribly interested in opinions about a game from someone that's never played or run it so I try not to do that. I'm much more interested in practical experiences. 

As one example Savage Worlds suffers from the "let's change stuff after reading the rules once" problem quite a bit.  It mainly seems to happen with people whose only other experience is with some form of D&D, but that's not a strict rule. Someone comes into a forum or a Facebook group and announces how much they like the game and they have a couple of genius changes that they're going to use. Inevitably they've played once and something fluky happened or they haven't actually played at all yet. SW players tend to be a friendly lot but the usual response is "OK, but you may want to try it by the book rule a little longer before you change it." You want to know why? because the game has been around with only minor changes for 15 years now and it works. It works very well for fast playing pulpy RPG campaigns. There may  be a genre-specific thing someone is trying to do and that's cool but there isn't much that needs to be tweaked in the core rules. A more common problem is people not understanding the rules and trying to make changes based on a misunderstanding but there are parts that are tricky to explain purely on a page so that's not always the reader's fault.  Someday Pinnacle will find the perfect way to explain the Shaken rule and we will enter a new golden age I am sure, but until then a little conversation helps explain it much easier. 

Maybe it's the guns that make all of these "unplayable"?

My closing take: no game is "unplayable". Some are harder, some are easier, some will be less fun for your group than others, and that's how it's all supposed to work! I don't have any interest in playing or running Rolemaster but I know groups that have played it for years - clearly it's not unplayable. There was a Kickstarter last year for an updated rulebook for original Deadlands and it blew my mind - why would anyone play that when Reloaded is available? Apparently quite a few people because it funded quickly and went way over the goal. 

Oops! - Nope, that's not it!

I suppose I could re-title this "a word I don't like" because that's what it boils down to. I think we can do better. 


Jerry Harris said...

Obviously, this situation is highly dependent upon the group. If even one person, hopefully the GM, understands the rules well and can explain them clearly, the group can get along well with probably about any game.

However, we're 40+ years since the beginnings of tabletop RPG's. The gamebooks that Gary Gygax assembled on his kitchen table, that included his home phone number for rules questions, isn't that much different than 5e. It's still a do-it-yourself and modify-it-as-you-will affair. The game system is mostly there for suggestions and possibilities.

Is it too much to ask for a non-hobby version of a tabletop RPG? Something that can be played by a group of complete novices? Could you get an RPG experience with rules that could be quickly picked up like any other kind of tabletop game?

Blacksteel said...

That's an interesting point. The last version of Gamma World was pretty close to that - you just needed dice and a pencil. It came with character sheets, cards, rules, tokens, poster maps, and an adventure all in one box set. Someone still had to run it though.

I think the non-hobby version of RPGs is RPG boardgames: Imperial Assault is a cut-down version of the Star Wars RPG. Descent is pretty close to D&D. Warhammer Quest for the Silver Tower is another one. WOTC has the 4E style boardgames like Wrath of Ashardalon.

I think those are your non-hobby versions of RPGs.

Jerry Harris said...

The impromptu interaction between the participants and their near unlimited range of action differentiates tabletop RPG's from boardgames and computer games inspired by RPG's.

RPG's carry along a lot of tropes from its hobbyist roots. What would an RPG game look like that didn't have those cliches, but still had the high degree participation and player agency?

Adam Dickstein said...

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond to this. It's been a rather rough week.

I think about this subject quite a lot.

One of the games we played often during my formative years in the hobby was Space Opera by Fantasy Games Unlimited. I've tried several times over the years to make heads, or tails of that monster in order to revisit one of the great games of my youth only to find it impossible to comprehend. It's a mess of overly complex, poorly organized madness.

It is unplayable? I don't know. I don't think so. I mean...we played it...we played it a lot. How did we do this?

Well, my assumption is that we had a ton more patience, and we modified it a great deal to make it work. We probably left out half of the rules, allowed for things it doesn't allow for, and added bits and bobs here and there.

This is what we did to everything, and I still do to this day.

I will say however that I do adhere to the feeling that if you need to modify more than 50, or 60% of a game to make it function for me in an enjoyable way, I would rather get and play a game where that wasn't the case. I love to fiddle with stuff, but if I have to redesign a game to make it 'playable', I might as well design a new game myself from scratch.

I've been working on a pet project 'behind the scenes' in which I am trying to turn Gygax's Cyborg Commando into a cool game. At this point, that's not really what I am doing. No, by now I am creating an all new game, and calling it Cyborg Commando.

Blacksteel said...

There's a big difference between "unplayable" and whether you _want_ to play a particular game. I'd guess most of us have run into a game where the subject really speaks to us but the mechanics just are not right. That usually leads to modifying the game or just playing something else.

I know we tried out Space Opera in the mid-80's and after fighting thru it for a while I decided that we already had Traveller, Star Frontiers, and Star Trek and that I would rather play one of those than fight another set of FGU mechanics.

Blacksteel said...

"RPG's carry along a lot of tropes from its hobbyist roots. What would an RPG game look like that didn't have those cliches, but still had the high degree participation and player agency?"

I think any RPG where a player is expected to make up their own character with any amount of detail is going to be a niche thing. If one of the players is expected to "run" the game, it's going to be a niche game. Drop those two things and it doesn't look much like an RPG at all.

Marvel Heroic eliminates the character creation, but someone still has to run and adjudicate the game. GW 7th edition has boardgame elements but still allows the players to do whatever they want so is still an RPG but again. I'd say those are two approaches that get closer than anything else I can think of.