Saturday, November 19, 2022

On Running Very Different Types of Games

Prepare ye for some musings on the philosophy of gaming... 

I used to spend far too much time, not too long ago, trying to figure out my 'perfect game system.' You know, that one, elusive RPG rules-system -- whether about to be published, somehow already published but not on my radar, or the pending product of my intensive house-ruling and hacking -- that finally would usher in a blissful millennial regime of perfectly satisfying game-play.

Yeah, um, about that...I'm pretty sure gaming doesn't work that way... 

...mainly because I don't think life itself is supposed to work that way. Pre-conditioned by a consumer-driven society to always lust after something else, anything else, just not one of the 5,000,000,000 gaming .pdfs already sitting on my hard drive, my flirtations with (one hopes!) middle-aged maturation point me towards greater contentment with what I've got ... or at least with a more realistic view of the point of getting new games. To be clear, I still love me some new gaming action, and I've got my beady eyes now on a few choice titles on the horizon ... but I'm trying to be a bit more deliberate and thoughtful about it all. 

Perhaps ironically, fixating less on the pursuit of 'that one perfect game' has helped me recognize more clearly how very different systems have lots to offer just as they are, for a particular niche. That tired old debate - "system matters! no, you dolt, system doesn't matter!" - like any (false) dichotomy, obscures the grain of truth on each side of the argument. A creative, flexible, experienced GM can make almost any RPG system do wonderful things, but of course system directly impacts the experience of gameplay. 

A while ago, I made a list of different niches for rules systems - different types of games that I find appealing at different times. What, I then asked, might be my preferred rules systems for executing each kind of game? It proved helpful to me to think not in terms of genres, but in terms of the experience of different play-styles. Here was my list of categories: 

  • OSR - more complex/substantial
  • OSR - less complex/rules light 
  • PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse games - I'd add Forged in the Dark games here too)
  • Solo or Cooperative games
  • Tactical RPGs
  • Games with High-Powered player characters 

There's a lot of potential for overlap between some of those categories, though each one has its own distinct play-style or experience. As I worked to articulate what systems might best suit my preferences in each category, I noticed some games that I like fitting in multiple categories, while others obviously had more limited roles. Somehow, breaking things down like this also gave me some clarity about the kinds of gaming I wanted to do for the present season. For example, I realized that - at least for now - the 'more complex OSR game' wasn't really where I wanted to land. On the rules-lighter side, I absolutely love Into the Odd, but I can get disenchanted with the real limitations of its ultralight framework. What I realized, however, is that I'd rather accept ItO's intended niche and use it to run a freewheeling, rules-light OSR/NSR game ... or if I wanted something with more heft, I'd rather use something crunchier than most of my 'centrist' OSR systems (I had looked in earnest into Low Fantasy Gaming for a while, for example, before settling for...something else. More below).

After shifting from a science-fantasy campaign using Dungeon World, I had been running a campaign using a house-ruled Knave-based system. Knave is great! We played through most of a mash-up of The Evils of Illmire and The Black Dragon of Brandonsford that way. But I started feeling that Knave wasn't delivering the experience we wanted for the time being (see, it's a great system - but wasn't right for the moment). On the one hand, some of my players really longed for more detail and agency for custom-tailoring their characters during advancement. And as GM, I was getting bored with the monsters-as-lightly-flavored-bags-of-hit-points phenomenon that (like it or not!) can stand out in OSR games when compared to crunchier systems (yes, yes, I know; there are ways to address that with GM creativity. But system doesn't matter, except when it does). I wanted critters that were more mechanically interesting to throw at my players, and I wanted a little more tactical specificity in the rules so I could lean hard in combat without constantly breaking the PCs - or pulling my punches. (I doubt it's a spoiler to note that The Black Dragon of Brandonsford has ... a black dragon in it. The fight with that monster, under Knave rules, was memorable, but I came away feeling that I was always one or two GM-fiat choices away from a cakewalk or a total party kill. I wanted to play hardball, without being arbitrarily cruel!). 

For a variety of reasons, we switched the campaign over to Pathfinder 2e

It would not surprise me to learn that I'm one of few (or the only?) GMs out there to have converted situations and encounters from the thoroughly OSR-ish Illmire and Brandonsford into PF2e! Or to have multiple recurring villains in an ongoing PF2e campaign who started as NPCs in those modules. I integrated them into a new region 'just across the mountains' and started up a very faction-heavy, situation-based campaign that draws on a lot of old-school resources despite the very modern rules system. (Gotta say - I am digging playing in my own sandbox full of conflicting, home-made factions). 

Well, how's it going, and what have I learned?

Here again, I'm seeing how different rule systems can offer so much while simultaneously imposing their own kinds of limits. Despite turning up my nose for years at Paizo's flagship system, I'm now finding PF2e a really excellent base for gaming centered around tactical combat. Pleasantly, I've found the system works well, too, when I set aside 'the grid' and run a much looser battlefield - in fact, it's almost easier and more fun that way. One of our favorite fights in the campaign so far used abstract zones on a vertical, side-facing cutaway color diagram of a dilapidated slum tower - from a Warhammer Fantasy RPG supplement - instead of a top-down gridded map. I ran another fight (near "Illmire") using a handrawn rough sketch of a swampy battlefield about 100 meters across that took about eight seconds to draw. Balanced fights are really easy to plan and run, and monsters generally feel distinct and interesting and often pose mini-puzzles for players to crack during combat. Several of my players are reveling in the greater customization and control afforded by the system. So, huzzah!

On the other hand ... our pace has SLOWED down!!!  

Right now, the party is exploring a floating dwarven citadel (thanks, inspiration from Dragons of Desolation!). They got there on a flying dwarven skyship, seeking clues to the reason the castle got torn skyward centuries ago, and also to recover a relic axe (the PCs are trying to help a group of dwarves boost recruitment for an army to retake their halls from a dark Duergar cult; recovering the axe should give them the P.R. boost needed to swell the army with fresh recruits - while causing some indirect problems with other factions that the PCs will have to deal with, too). 

Due to various real-life factors, our sessions of late have been limited to about 2-3 hours most weekends. Two sessions ago, we got through a bit of freeform roleplaying and lore-dumping to set up the mission, and then the PCs were dropped off on a balcony (under fire from angry Strix birdmen) and fought their way inside, finding a treasure-laden workshop guarded by several dwarven-crafted automata. The resulting fight took up the rest of the session. Then, in our most recent session, the party left that room, climbed a central stair-shaft, dealt with some brown mold on a kitchen cabinet, had a big fight in a haunted banquet hall, climbed more stairs, and entered another room where they'll obviously face a big fight - and time was up for the session. So, basically, one complex fight, and two 'empty' but trapped spaces - in a full session. 

That is kind of frustratingly slow compared to the pace of other campaigns I've run (a few years back, we used Dungeon World to roll through B10, Night's Dark Terror, and X1, The Isle of Dread. We got SO MUCH DONE some nights in those campaigns! Not to mention the night we played what would normally be an entire campaign's story in a single night using On Mighty Thews...). Right now, the slower pace required by the more detailed, crunchy combat mechanics and turns in PF2e is pushing me to focus on designing memorable, interesting encounters, but at the cost of flexible, more open-ended play. I feel like a technician instead of an artist: checking moves, maintaining order, applying rules, tracking mechanics (and that's even with a willingness to just make rulings when I can't find the 'proper' PF2e way quickly). I'm really missing the playful, creative sense of surprise that I get when GMing a less crunchy and more open system. 

So...hmm...what's a GM to do?

An earlier version of me would probably be screeching to a halt already, deciding that 'this isn't THE system, after all', and moving on in search of greener pastures. But the shift in my thinking in recent years, as described above, has me looking for a different solution. PF2e is a GREAT engine, FAR better than many other games I've run at doing certain things. But it's also slower and more cumbersome when compared to many other games I've run.  

Instead of jumping ship and looking for 'something better', I'm trying to focus on celebrating what we are gaining from using this system at this time, while thinking clearly about what else I might like at an appropriate - and maybe other? - time. 

I do think I want to tweak something, but I suspect the answer might lie in budgeting time for something else while persisting to do this current campaign real justice. I'm thinking of a few ideas ... like maybe committing to run something much more freewheeling for a break in a few months' time. Forged in the Dark systems are really calling my name right now (in fact, I've got some thoughts I hope to share soon about FitD rules-light options for 'domain play' and mass combat). Alternately, maybe the answer is to switch back and forth - maybe we could run two concurrent campaigns, with something like Blades in the Dark one week, and PF2e the next? That might scratch the right itch for everybody (I've got one player in particular who really misses the system of Dungeon World). 

Whatever I do, though ... I want to be mindful and content if I'm going to run something. I'm not afraid to abandon a campaign that isn't going well (I've done that before), but I don't think that's where I'm at right now. Instead, maybe the right approach now involves being aware of the different kinds of play that I like, celebrating the ways I'm getting some of that, and waiting patiently and flexibly to try other styles at the right time. 

Hmmmm. Thanks for bearing with these musings ... hopefully they provoke a few useful insights for somebody else, too.