January 21, 2010

It's Not the Game System

There are a multitude of rpg systems out there. Want to play a game where you can crunch the numbers to make yourself powerful, try the Shadowrun rules. Want an "old-school" fantasy game, try the Mazes and Monsters system. Want a game that blurs the line between GM and player, try the Mouseguard system. There are a plethora of game systems out there that target a wide variety of styles.

However, the thing to remember is that a game system is only a tool to helping a group accomplish what they want out of a game session. Whether or not a group has fun on any particular gaming night is not dictated by the system.

A game system is a catalyst for helping people play the type of game they want to play. It will get the group thinking in the patterns they want to be thinking.

My wife has been running a 3rd edition Gamma World game for a couple of years now, two games in fact, set on the same world but with two different groups. The game is woefully out of date; to put it in perspective the follow-up 4th edition came out in 1985 replacing this edition. The rules are flawed and incomplete. Skills were a new concept and burdensome. You have to roll high for some things and roll low for others depending on what you want to do. Its random nature makes for some powers that are useless and some that are too powerful. By all accounts this game should be a complete failure. And yet it isn't.

My wife runs a light game wherein the players are allowed to make fools of themselves. She, however, throws us into serious situations (saving villages from marauding nihilists, rescuing scientists frozen for 800 years, bringing civilization back to a broken land) keeping the game from deteriorating into silliness. She has found a way to overcome the system and provide an engaging campaign.

Why does she stick to an outdated and weak system? Because she knows it. She doesn't have to look a rule up. She can use campaign material she wrote years ago, material she doesn't have to look over again. This allows her to run a fast and loose game based on a solid structure.

The reason the game and campaign works is because the GM is very competent and the players are there to play a game, not play a system. The players bring the right attitude and don't get bogged down in the details. The players know the basics of the game and the use of their powers, but the real enjoyment comes from interacting with the world setting and the NPCs provided by the GM. The players know their talents and skills could be better defined. But it all doesn't matter. There is enough information to play a game. Each character has enough special abilities to make him feel unique and useful. The characters are still defined and bound by their statistics, but the players are not bound by the system.

The two points of the preceding paragraph is that:
• A good GM can make any system fun. By understanding the rules and, more importantly, the reasons behind the rules, a game can run smoothly; without hesitation or stopping to examine the rules during playtime.
• A good set of players will bring the right attitude wherein the end goal of having a good time supersedes the rules.

Too often players and GMs become bogged down in a system, wherein playing within the system is more important than playing the game. Often players look to gain an advantage over the game system instead of looking for a way to gain the advantage over the situation within the game setting. While I personally enjoy exploring a game system, I also advocate that a system should not be the end result of a night’s game play. The purpose is to have fun and to use a system to accomplish that goal.

If you've been reading between the lines, you may have reached the conclusion you don't really need a game system at all. I wouldn’t go that far. A game system sets boundaries and adds random results. Without a game system all you really are doing is sitting around a camp fire telling stories.
Good game systems can compensate for a poor GM or poor player attitudes. By putting a system to the forefront of a game you let the rules run the game. A weak GM has a lighter workload by virtue of letting the rules dictate what happens. Weak players can solve a problem with the rules instead of their own personal ingenuity.

In the end, a game system is only a catalyst for allowing the players to play the type of game they want. Whether or not a night’s gaming is fun or not is dependent on the players, not the system.
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