Session Zero


An addendum to my previous post on the ascendancy of system in role-playing games, inspired by Travis Miller's recent explanation of the evolution of the genre:

Miller sees the emergence of the RPG format as the creative addition of open system world building to the closed systems of hobbyist wargaming. Role playing proper appeared when wargamers started using the relatively inflexible rule sets of wargames as the basis for collaboratively imagining adventures in fantasy settings.

I've already seen some pushback to Miller's account, and honestly, I'm not versed enough in the history of the scene to adjudicate, but I find it striking that the theoretical division he presents — open vs. closed — maps pretty well to the way system and setting are discussed in the OSR scene. Miller writes:

I can throw down the GURPS, D6 System, Savage Worlds or any other generic system and that will be inadequate. Without the setting in which the game takes place, it’s just rules and die rolls.

But we need not think purely in terms of generic systems. Discussion about taking the system from one game and applying it to the setting from another is common. Free Kriegsspiel Revolution goes a step further, demonstrating to what extent the open system component of Miller's equation can be made to stand on its own.

The implication, whether we like it or not, is that the units we think of as role playing games are chimera, patched together from parts which, more often than not, have no integral connection to one another. The phenomenon we called a role playing game may, in fact, be something occurring at the intersection of other games.

Maybe Miller's account is wrong. I've already seen it argued that early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons hewed close to a simulationist model — wargaming with goblins, in effect — and that may be so. At the very least, it's possible to imagine a fantasy dungeon crawl game constrained by a much more tightly closed system than those used in modern OSR/NSR games, and I'm sure some people would both play and enjoy that. But would we call it a role playing game? If not, then we may still have to reckon with the hybrid nature of the beast.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #freekriegspiel #FKR #DND

The more time I spend in OSR/NSR conversations on the internet, the more I'm struck by the quietly contested state of system in those communities. On the one hand, there is an absolute welter of rulesets out there, ranging from relatively true-to-model adaptations of various editions of D&D, to radical reinventions of the form. But at the same time, there seems to be a broad consensus that none of these systems are essential to actual play. They're taken more in the spirit of suggestions. At best, each is a tool shed that may be ransacked for parts.

There appears to be a general aversion to playing games “as written.” GMs certainly haven't stopped bringing new games and supplements to the table, but to hear them speak of it, many run those materials using not the printed rules, but rather bespoke systems, hacked together out of elements from here and there. One designer of a well-known horror/sci-fi game is even said to have admitted he doesn't run his own game as written.

This makes conversation tricky. To what extent are we talking about the same activity when we discuss a game we've both modified, each to our own tastes? I'm reminded of the comment sections underneath recipes on food blogs: “Loved this dish, made it with turkey instead of beef, added oregano, and used a different cooking method.” Serve whatever you enjoy at your own table, but those changes complicate how we talk about what the recipe does or does not achieve.

The attitude shapes design as well. New games are routinely presented as hacks, by which I take them to mean a formalization of their own approach to running some other system. Some are written on the assumption that players will pick-and-choose which rules they'll implement. Maybe that's merely realism about the state of the hobby. In some cases, it's almost reads like a moral imperative. For people just cutting their teeth in the hobby, it can pose challenges.

There are, of course, historical reasons for these tensions. GURPS, heartbreakers, the Arneson–Gygax rift, D&D's release of a SRD. Ours is a haunted hobby. Cumulatively, these points along the last half-century of its development have contributed to a conception of system that suggests some underlying game we're all playing, an unattained object toward which this endless proliferation of rules is aimed.

Many paths, one destination. For me, that premise locked into focus a while back when someone on Twitter (I don't recall who) alluded to the “one perfect system” every GM is seeking — a semi-mythical ruleset particular enough to suit your own personal play-style, but flexible enough to accommodate any setting or story you might want to explore.

Deliberately or not, that trope correlates to a certain diminution of the rules. What function does a rule serve if you can change it out for another and ostensibly arrive at the same game? Are they even rules once they've been made interchangeable? At the far end of that trajectory is free kriegspiel, which dispenses with most rules in favor of judgments. All well and good. Your table, your rules. Or no rules, as the case may be. In the middle ground, though? The territory between D&D and FKR? Rules appear to have been replaced by system.

Would it be uncharitable to characterize the OSR as a movement built on devising new systems for playing old games? Perhaps; but it's also true that one standard by which OSR systems are judged is their compatibility with existing modules. That, in itself, exerts a formative pressure on design. It favors rules — or are they methods? — that do what has already been done, or which, at the very least, ensure that past modules, some of them nearly half a century old, don't break at the table.

Which is not to deny that there are innovations in the ever-growing catalog of new games and systems. There are substantive differences between them, even if the changes are sometimes incremental. But the demands of adaptability and modularity ensure that many of them are disposable. New games are made to be functional without any given rule or method because the odds of the system making it to the table intact are low.

I'm painting with a broad brush, but only to highlight a general trend. There are, of course, a great many games that take seriously the constructive power of a clever rule. There are games that daisy-chain a slew of well-crafted rules to foster novel modes of play at the table. There are games with rulesets so carefully calibrated that removing any one rule would undermine how the game as a whole plays. These games sacrifice the ideal of a universal system that can be used to role-play in any world, but in doing so, they make it possible to role-play some worlds and some stories better.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #GMing

Three sessions of Ultraviolet Grasslands, and things are settling into a much happier groove. After a fight with some vomes west of the Last Serai, one of our characters has developed an addiction to hop fizz; another tricked a Porcelain Patrol with a severed head; our quarterling has developed mutations that make him resemble a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz; and the group has taken time off from their trade mission to start smuggling contraband bodies. Technically, some of these are negative turns of event, but the group responded positively. There's a narrative quality to the turns. They have throughline. They develop the characters. The clear, mercantile goal they started with no longer seems like the obvious end of their trajectory. Events are beginning to shape them in ways that surprise us. This is The Good Stuff.™

Some of this emerged from playing the system, which as you may recall, was the source of my frustration last time around. The quarterling's mutations arose as the result of a routine Misfortune roll. That put the party in a sandstorm. Three of them rolled high enough to weather it without trouble. The quarterling's player rolled a failing number and had to roll for consequences. I think. I'm not totally sure I handled that one strictly according to the book, but the player was actually pleased with his character's mutations, so who's to gainsay my method?

Other turns were the result of prep. Once the characters decided to start smuggling bodies, an inspection by the Porcelain Patrol was too good a narrative opportunity to pass up. The random procedures could have led to the same scene, but the odds were against it. And my meddling paid off. The resulting scene was tense, threatening to break out in combat at any moment, with the odds very much against my players' low-level caravan. As often happens in the groove, table banter gave rise to a plan so absurd that it had to be tried. Its success is already one of the highlights of the campaign.

I'm having to reconcile myself to the fact that this is what works. It feels like a weak spot in my skill set. I've seen GMs write that they've run the game straight from the book, and that it just “works.” Which is appealing, but not my experience.

Could that be the issue? Experience? UVG is an opinionated system. Opinions inform all game design, of course, and those opinions are functional to the extent that they translate into procedures for play, but they're not really meaningful to the player who has no basis for comparison. “I like rolling d20s,” Rejec writes. That's why the game relies so heavily on the outcome of d20 rolls. Well… okay. Not having played other tabletop RPGs — even, you know, that one — my opinions on the pros and cons of the d20 were as yet unformed. Much of the book felt (and still feels) organized for someone who's run enough games to have their own opinions and procedures for making a game work. That's not to single out UVG. The more OSR games I read, the more the whole scene feels that way.

Adventure supplements are sometimes labeled, e.g., “for level 0-3 characters.” Maybe systems should have similar guidelines — “for level 2-5 referees.”