Monday, March 29, 2010

Zenwhat?!?

Zenslap, apparently. I’d never heard the term before. (Just another clear example of my personal cultural illiteracy.) New words are fun to learn, but I’m more interested in what Mr. Donoghue has to say:
Since then, It's been a lot easier for me to be comfortable with the different ways in which people get their fun, and more skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions.

This is the unspoken truth, the hidden pillar, the secret door if you will, of the OSR. Not everybody wants the same things from an RPG. This is why you can have fans of 4e and fans of 1e (or even, the gods forfend, fans of both!) enjoying their games in the same room.

This knowledge carries with it some implicit activity on your part. In order to really dig into what it means, you really ought to:

KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE.
This seems stupidly obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you know what you like, right? Who doesn’t?

Lots of people, as it turns out. For something like a decade, I thought the game I wanted was 3e. No more level-limits, lots of skills, feats to make playing the fighter still interesting after level 6, the monsters were as interesting and varied as the PCs, and finally a decent solution to that stupid nonsense about my magic-user not being able to swing a sword.

Only, when I finally got to play 3e, it was unwieldy, overburdened, and just not fun. (Not fun for everyone? Clearly not. But not fun for me. It wasn’t, as it turned out, what I really wanted. It was only what I thought I’d wanted.)

This point has two sides. The first side is, of course, knowing what you really like. This requires a bit of self-reflection, of picking apart what you’re doing and finding out what you do enjoy and what you don’t. The second side is, of course, playing lots of games. The more data points you have, the closer to the truth you can get. And don’t assume that just because one attempt failed that you know all you need to know. You might need to see what an enthusiast can do before you really understand what it is you’re looking at. Oddysey had played and run a few dungeons already before she got to see what they were really about.

UNDERSTAND HOW GAMES WORK.
Once you know what you want, you can go looking for it. But to really understand if a game will deliver, you need to figure out how games work. This may require digging a bit into probabilities, or understanding the relationship between themes and mechanics. It certainly means being able to step back and take that view from 30,000 feet with an objective eye. It’s amazing how many people still think that Old School D&D was primarily about killing things.

While conventional wisdom can be in error, ad copy is almost always wrong. Too many people making games don’t take into account the unintended consequences, the bizarre behavior of players, and the simple truth that things will not be understood, or, at least, won’t be used, the way they were intended. Some simply don’t know games well enough themselves to produce the intended results. None of them know you well enough to match their aims with your preferences.

KNOW YOURSELF, KNOW YOUR GAME.
Once you’ve got those two down, the world of RPGs is your oyster. You can find the games that will give you the maximum fun for the minimum effort. You can houserule “almost” games into near-perfect matches while avoiding the trap of feature-creep, or breaking things with unintended consequences.

And, when someone asks you for advice on games or your write a review, you can honestly speak about who the game does serve, and who it doesn’t serve. You can get beyond the edition wars to find the hidden gems in the most “unplayable” systems. You can not sound like an opinionated twit spamming your knee-jerk preferences and stereotypes, and start sounding like someone who really knows and understands games, and who wants to be honestly helpful instead of a cheerleader for their game de jour.

6 comments:

blizack said...

Well said, and thanks for the link to the Dragon Warriors review - I hadn't seen that. (I am a devotee of the game.)

Amanda said...

I'm not sure if there's any perfect system that I've ever played, and I've played a lot of them in their various editions. But my current favorite is just so much FUN. We played a lot of 3E dungeons and dragons and Star Wars: Saga Edition for a few years but everything kind of had an old hat quality. Now we're playing Scion and I haven't played in any other game that encourages really epic game situations the same way it does. Where else can you get attacked by a Cyclops while riding on a bus in downtown Las Vegas?

My group generally ends up playing whatever system isn't too unweildy to deal with but fits best with whatever genre the players and DM are interested in. The system is I think really only relevant in terms of you have players and they are going to do stuff and there needs to be a way to measure the process of and results of confronting those challenges. All the arguments over 'systems' are kind of silly because they all amount to the same thing at their core anyway. This is an interesting post because I went through the process of trying to find the 'right' system for the sandbox game I want to run and ended up having to adapt something heavily to get what I wanted out of it. I read just about every OSR set of rules or weird obscure game I'd never played I could find and none of them fit the bill.

trollsmyth said...

Amanda: Yeah, system does matter. The thing I like best about Labyrinth Lord is that it's simple enough that I can hack off bits and graft on others to turn it into my favorite Frankenstine's monster of a system.

But as for Scion that's a game I've never played. Is it just the setting that allows for those epic moments, or is there something in the rules themselves which promote that sort of thing?

Amanda said...

Scion is basically using the White Wold Storyteller system with a few changes they made just for Scion. It's self contained though and they only made a few books for it. The premise of the game (if you're not familiar with it) is that the players are children of the Gods of the ancient world: footsoldiers in the war against the Titans. The whole goal of the game is to become a legendary hero like Hercules and Gilgamesh. And you're rewarded with bonus dice by the storyteller for creative combat maneuvers, which isn't really necessary with a good group but I suppose it might encourage people to break out of the 'I hit it' habit with the lure of extra dice to roll. Rules wise I think it's pretty streamline and our combats tend to be pretty exciting and fast paced so far. The fight with the cyclops was pretty memorable. :)

Matthew James Stanham said...

Knowing what you like and why you like it is definitely the most important and startling lesson I have learned about adventure games in the last ten years. D20/3e absolutely helped me understand my preferences in the regard, as I struggled to figure out why I did not really like it.

Since then I have found I am able to play these same games and enjoy them for what they are, including D20/3e and D20/4e, even if they do not meet my particular preferences by way of system. A "zen" moment, perhaps, but then I am not playing such games regularly!

Matthew Slepin said...

KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE.
This seems stupidly obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you know what you like, right? Who doesn’t?

Lots of people, as it turns out.



When I returned to gaming after a decade-plus absence, I was stunned at all the theorizing going on. Ron Edwards was making waves, etc. But all of that showed me where so much of my frustrations of 10 years of gaming had come from: I thought I wanted something other than I wanted.

My happier boy now.