Indie RPGs Are Too Restrictive
Here is a title which will make me few friends. To be fair, it is a sensationalist title. A more accurate title may be “This is why I keep returning to D20 games despite how awesome Indie RPGs such as Dungeon World, Mouseguard and Cortex Plus are.”
Actually, let’s leave Dungeon World out of this. It’s an awesome game but the problems I have with it are slightly outside what I want to talk about today. Let’s also define what it is I both like and dislike about these games.
When it comes to the games that I’ve played and read recently one of the primary focuses of the games are collaborative storytelling and rules which support and guide that story. Sometimes the games are incredibly structured, like Mouseguard and Burning Wheel’s mechanics of GM Turn and Player Turn.
Sometimes they’re a bit free-form, like Cortex Plus games like Firefly having players spend earned points to create assets which they can use during scenes.
Generally these games can be described as Story-First where “traditional” rpgs like Dungeons and Dragons are Combat-First, that is the rules revolve almost completely around combat.
Advantages of Story-First Systems
In theory, I love story-first RPGs. On the surface they enable me to tell create a story with my players using the full support of the rules. At their very best they codify and describe good behaviors of successfully Game Masters. Mouseguard, for example, helped me understand how to construct obstacles in my games that aren’t frustrating dead-ends and campaign-killers.
Game Masters are not the only one who benefits from these systems. Players too find rules which enable and reward roleplaying. Both Mouseguard and Firefly have mechanics which reward players who roleplaying situations where their character’s traits would be a hinderance instead of an asset. In Mouseguard these later allow the players to control their story during the Player Turn. In Firefly these provide points required by the players to succeed in the game.
These type of games require a dedication to the rules that seems counter-intuitive in a game designed to focus on story. This is because the rules are designed to help craft the story instead of being something that players need to ignore to do so. In Firefly you can use a gun but if you don’t pay a plot-point it won’t improve your roll. In Mouseguard you need to generate points during the GM turn in order to be able to do anything at all during the Player turn. These rules don’t follow simulation-like logic, they are rules to incentivize a type of play, so if the players aren’t on-board the game can feel artificial.
Advantages of Combat-First Systems
Personally, while I find Story-First games illuminating, I often come to the realization that I’d rather play a game which imposes much less structure on the story. This is why time and time again I return to games which many gamers, especially those who prefer story and roleplaying over combat, claim are focused primarily on combat. The truth, for me at least, is that by focusing only on rules for combat I am free to shape any story I wish and for my players to influence it in any way they wish.
I’ve read posts by people claiming that by focusing on combat rules it informs players that they should expect the solution to every problem is the edge of their sword. That is only partially true. Board games and video games have taught me that every rule is a clue how to succeed at a game but roleplaying games are different. In a roleplaying game you are free to do whatever you want to do, whether that is fight or parlay. Fighting is the default action more because we are emulating the exploits of The Fellowship and Conan and dealing with creatures with which talking through our feelings is never an option.
My Favorite System
Unfortunately I must take the easy escape on this subject. Generally my favorite system is the one I’m currently reading. Today that is 13th Age which replaces everything I disliked about Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition with everything I liked about Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. However, the most influential system for me is Dungeon World. Dungeon World taught me how to run a game properly. I may not live up to its ideals but I am better for the attempt.
What is your favorite system and why? Do you prefer a game where the rules are about creating stories or do you follow my logic? Leave a comment or find me on Google+ or Twitter. Don’t forget to subscribe for more.
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