I’ve been musing recently about role-playing games that made me think, that generated ideas and reflection even though I didn’t enjoy them all that much as games! I mean, it’s easy to praise from your favourite games; you love them, play them, discuss them quite naturally. But there are games that didn’t float my boat for whatever reason — and yet taught me something interesting, useful, intriguing. Believe me, if they are your favourite games, I’m not dissing your preferences. I’m very aware of the fact that different people like different things and I’m delighted that there are a variety of games out to suit not only different people and groups, but for our different moods and changing preferences. I will try to explain why they didn’t move me as games but still made my gaming better.
1. Primetime Adventures (1st ed.)
Why I didn’t like it: (1) The very minimalist randomization mechanic (essentially heads-or-tails results) was frustratingly insufficient to provide either suspense or a good sense of an ability’s usefulness, i.e., how good are you at anything if the roll results are more important than the ability score. I note that this changed with the 2nd edition, so I must not have been the only one unsatisfied with the mechanic. However, the new mechanic involves getting a certain number of playing cards that will be used to resolve the action. I have not played this version, but I would fear the effect found in _Castle Falkenstein_, which also resolved skill use with playing cards and where the cards were far more important than your ability rating.
(2) The screen presence score per episode got in the way of story development for me; showing up for an episode where I knew I had low screen presence felt like I was condemned to be a cheerleader, no matter how good an idea I might have, and even if the player with higher screen presence was off his or her game that night. And if someone with high screen presence could not make it for a certain episode, you might as well cancel the game for the evening.
(3) The fan mail mechanic, while a clever idea, did not work all that smoothly in our group, perhaps because not all players wanted to reward the same aspects of play.
(4) The aspect that most bugged bugged me was the use of a a character “issue” as a funnelling device for all important action. While I agree that player characters are more interesting when they are focused, being reduced to a single issue per character made the PCs repetitive and clichéd. I prefer more richly detailed characters.
Why it made me think: The series and episode pacing really made me think about structure and how best to provide and use it. Before that, I had thought mostly in terms of characters, acts, and overall episode. This filled in the levels between character and act (scenes) and above episode (series or arcs).
2. Dogs in the Vineyard
Why I didn’t like it: Maybe it’s a bit harsh to list this as a game I didn’t like. While I had zero interest in the original setting, a friend of mine ran a noir game centred on the Black Dahlia murder, and it worked very well. On the other hand, the idea that player characters essentially create and/or impose the morality scale in a setting was both attractive and creepy, and so I tend to be picky about which group of people I can play this game with.
Why it made me think: (1) The conflict escalation idea — from e.g., social to physical to armed — was a terrific idea. It definitely led to changes in the way I approach conflict in games, both as a player and as a GM. (2) Fallout — the idea that taking damage or failure in conflict leads to lasting changes in your character — was also quite interesting, though the specific mechanic made it a little less portable to other games.
3. Burning Empires
Why I didn’t like it: Ah well. I actually wrote a review on RPG.net for this game, and in so doing got some people frothing mad at me. In short, BE was way too rules-heavy for me or the rest of my group, and to top it off it didn’t provide a setting section I could have used with another system.
Why it made me think: (1) The world-building part of setting up the game was very successful and popular even with players who otherwise hated the game. While many other games before and since have included an initial world-building step, BE did this in a very organized fashion that provided cohesion to the result, and character and NPC creation tied directly into it. This gave the players significant investment in the setting.
(2) The explicit use of different scene types in play made me reflect on what a scene should do to advance a story. BE used Colour Scenes (no dice rolling, just setting the stage or the mood), Interstitial Scenes (conversations and interactions between characters, no dice rolling), Building Scenes (all right, we finally get to use those skills and roll some dice!), and Conflict Scenes (the big stuff). In essence, this expanded for me the thinking started with Primetime Adventures and made me reflect more deeply on what I should try to create in a given scene; it also provided a vocabulary to discuss this with the rest of the group. In addition, the idea that not every scene should be a big conflict, that the action should be reserved for centrepiece scenes, led to better pacing.
4. Apocalypse World
Why I didn’t like it: For one thing, I did not resonate with the setting or most of the original playbooks (character templates or archetypes). Gamers have created a variety of hacks to adapt it to other published settings (from A|state to Doctor Who and from Battlestar Galactica to A Song of Ice and Fire) and some have been successfully published as new settings, like Monsterhearts and Dungeon World, so that initial hurdle has at least been partly remedied. But overall, the mechanics also fail to get me excited. I don’t have strong criticism, I just find them uninteresting. Fortunately for me, I played with fun GMs and players so the actual stories were good, but I felt like all the good stuff could have been generated with just about any system.
Why it made me think: The Chinese menu approach to action resolution. Just as the character creation process relies of picking a few options from a menu — not in itself a new idea — actions are also resolve that way: pick a “Move” from a list of 10 to 20 that may apply to your character, roll the dice, and depending on your level of success, pick a certain number of options from the list. For example, if roll to “read a situation”, depending on your result you may get to ask the GM zero to four questions from the GM. What this provides is an even-handed resolution of challenges that is often lacking in role-playing games; all too often, certain skills have specific resolution mechanics but others are vague and left to GM decision. AW’s menu approach provides both choices and structure.
In fact, I assume that this menu approach is largely what made the game so popular, even though it was not quite enough to make me become fond of the entire system.