Thursday, January 15, 2009

Game Systems

Like many gamers, my experience began with Dungeons & Dragons. In my case, I went from the 'Basic' rules and eventually blundered my way into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. These rules, I thought, were workable, especially since I had only a very vague concept of them before diving right into playin. As I got older, I managed to refine my knowledge of the system, but still, I found myself discarding a lot of the number-crunching aspects that I felt only slowed down combat (one such thing being the weapon versus specific types of armor). I also never liked the abstract 1 round = 1 minute convention, so in my game, I always assumed a round was around five seconds long. There were more omissions and additions on my part, but that doesn't matter—the point I'm trying to make is that I took what was presented, changed what I didn't like and made something I enjoyed running. Looking back on it, simplicity and speed were the things I was looking for.

 The next system I was exposed to was the Star Frontiers system, a direct percentile game. Again, it was simple and easy to use—and it had something that intrigued me greatly: A skill system instead of a class system. This seemed to make a lot more sense to me. You could have a computer specialist who was also a marksman, or a medic who was a thief. It offered the kind of flexibility that I found more 'realistic'—without pigeon-holing people into one single aspect. Where I found it lacking was in the number of skills (maybe two-dozen, total) and the way that some didn't seem to make logical sense (i.e. in order to be able to drive, you had to have the technician skill). Add to this the fact that you needed to be 'master level' in technician just to become a rookie starship pilot just didn't quick click. It didn't prevent me from enjoying myself, but it did put that thought in my mind: I liked skill-based systems.

There were a few other systems I tried. Top Secret/SI (another percentile/skill-based system) and Twilight 2000 (which a friend ran, so I don't remember much) but they didn't have a big impact on me. 

And then, in 1987, I saw the first ads for the Star Wars RPG, by West End Games. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I rushed out and got it as soon as it came out, buying in quick succession the original Rulebook, Sourcebook, Campaign Pack and Module 'Tatooine Manhunt'. What struck me first as I delved into these books was the simplicity and flexibility of the D6 System and its rather eloquent solution of a gaming situation that had always bugged me. In the grand scheme of things, this 'issue' never prevented me from liking a game system, but it was something I considered a shortfall in both D&D and Star Frontiers: Hit Points.

Yes, I know, hit points don't represent actual physical endurance, but rather 'luck and skill' at avoiding the killing stroke. But game-mechanic wise, by second or third level, it was very difficult to kill a character with a single hit from just about any weapon. Thus, a typical third level fighter could likely wade through a hail of arrows to hack an archer to pieces. Yes, there are ways around this: rules for critical hits or attacks against 'helpless' characters, but.. for me again it seemed to take away the 'reality' of combat, because players knew that these weapons likely wouldn't kill them with one shot.

In the D6 System, if you're hit with a weapon that does 4D damage, you roll your Strength to resist (which is an average of 3D). If the damage is higher than the strength roll, you're injured. If its a LOT higher, then you may be mortally wounded. Thus, by random chance, that 'wimpy' little 4D blaster could kill you. Anyone who has ever played in a game I ran knows that I rarely allow a player to be killed by a bad dice roll. So my reasons for liking this mechanic were never because it was more 'deadly', just because it was more real, in a very abstract way.

I know that all sounds rather nit-picky, but that was one of the first revelations I had about the D6 game system. And then I saw that it was: A) Fast Paced and Streamlined and B) Skill-based. It had all come together finally. The game system I was looking for. And wouldn't you know it? It was the setting for my favorite group of movies of all time.

Beyond the simple mechanics of the game, however, was the type of play this game proposed: Cinematic roleplay. Story-based roleplay. The module Tatooine Manhunt is what really introduced this idea to me. The 'Cut Away' devices that frame the different 'episodes' of the adventure lend a distinctly movie-like quality, giving the players an out-of-character glimpse as to what their enemies might be up to and helping set the mood for whatever event was going to happen next. It was also a nice way to introduce a villain, give them a bit of character development so that when they finally DO meet the characters (and likely get gunned down by them) they will be more than just a name. 

The emphasis on story and roleplay rather than sandbox was something I found I liked—and indeed it will be the focus of my next posting. 

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