This post is going to have double purpose: To address the issues of player agency and narrative control, and to tie into a short review (as a player) of the new Firefly system.

This weekend, I got a chance to play in a game of Firefly by Margaret Weis Productions run by one of the systems leads, Mark Truman, for the game. I figured it might be interesting to see if the experience of the game would be different, and if my opinions of the game would be changed by it. Along the way, there were some interesting chances to speak with the others at the table.

Mr. Truman had had a chance to peruse the previous review, and we talked about the experience of the game as I (and others) saw it. One of my comments was that the assets and complications mechanic, as in Fate, was overly complex and could lead to some confusion for the players and the GM. The assumption seemed to that I didn’t understand the mechanic, which was incorrect — I did, and even saw use in it — or that my lack of skill with the system was coloring my perception of the game. This response, I thought, harkened back to some of the issues of the Is there a right way to Game? post from a few weeks ago, and brought up some interesting questions for me:

1) Is the skill or familiarity with a system intrinsically linked to perceiving a game as good or bad? Is it a case of “It’s not the game that sucks; you’re playing it wrong”? That was certainly the implication I inferred. (Which means I could have completely misread the statement — so consider that my “I could be full of shit” caveat.) 

2) By this metric, if you are very skilled with a set of rules does that make a game “good?”

 3) Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Are are skill, familiarity, and preference linked, or is this a case of correlation not being causation?

4) Is your prefreence for one system over another based on a lack of proficiency with the system?

I’m going to start with the last point first: absolutely. I’ve known plenty of gamers for whom if the rules are not GURPS, OGL d20, or Fate, they’re not playin’. (Says the guy bitterly clinging to a half dozen defunct games…) Most of these guys have also been playing the same games for years. For these people, it is familiarity that produces preference, but what about people who do venture forth and try new games? — which I have advocated in the past.

I would suggest that for these intrepid gamers, preference comes from two factors: ease of play or learning curve, and from how well a game models the genre or the setting. Ease of play usually ties to the simplicity of the core mechanic. The traditional attribute+skill (+asset or other factor) beating a target number has been pretty standard for at least 20 years. Before that, in early D&D, it was as simple as roll a d20 and get under the number for your trait (strength, etc…) The learning curve was relatively slight, with a bit of a rise when you hit combat or magic. Add a ton of math into character creation or into managing modifiers to a roll was a good way to lose a player’s interest — although GURPS and early Champions still had plenty of adherents.

More importantly, especially with the wave of newer system designs in the 1990s, were games tailored more toward role playing rather than tactical gaming with role playing rules tacked onto them (have a look at your favorite game — if the chapter on combat is twice the size as the core mechanics, we’re talking about you…) White Wolf, Call of Chthulu, Castle Falkenstein, Fudge (later Fate) were relatively simple to learn, gave the players more say in character design than race, class, etc; and oriented toward pushing story, rather than wargames with characters. This required the games to also adhere to genre convention well.

What does this have to do with preference? There are games that have lived a long and healthy life after they went out of print. Some of those were settings that would be recreated in newer games. Case in point: Why play Last Unicorm or Decipher Star Trek when FASA already did it in the 1980s. (And there are die-hard FASA fans that will not consider doing that…) LUG Trek managed to do a good job of modeling the universe of the various Star Trek television shows, and was a lot easier to learn than FASA’s version. Decipher took a lot of the LUG ideas, thought about cramming it into OGL d20, then relented and gave a bastardized version of LUG Trek that did a good job of handling all of the series (LUG had series specific core books!), but lost some of the ease of the prior set of rules. Still I jumped to Decipher…why? The core rules were easy and the game captured the feel of Trek pretty well.

Why use Spycraft when there’s Top Secret or James Bond: 007? Why buy Victoriana when there’s Castle Falkenstein? Why buy anything else when there’s GURPS? Because the new game captures the flavor of the genre you are playing in. 

If familiarity or skill with a system were so intrinsic to preference, why would people branch out? Can you look at your favorite game for a certain genre and say “this would be better, but I like this better”? I’ll start it off — Classic Cortex would probably work just as well, if not better, for espionage games such as James Bond. But JB:007 helps emulate the world of the movies better than Cortex’s mechanics would, despite being more complex. Preference here is due to familiarity, but it does not create in me the impression that other systems are not good…for this, JB:007 just does it better. Firefly does a decent job of capturing the show, but would be better at modeling Star Trek. Take that FASA guys!

Which starts to deal with point the third: Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Can a player role play well enough that the rules are incidental. After 30+ year of doing this, that’s an unequivocal YES. In other words — there’s no way to play wrong. Your “skill” as a player, nor your enjoyment of a game, is necessarily hinged on the mechanics. However, there is a way to design a game that will not play well for certain expectations. Those expectations are not wrong, nor is a preference for, say, how mechanics divvy up narrative responsibility (for instance, strong v weak GM.) Those expectations can help someone understand if running a certain system or playing with those rules is more preferable than another set of rules. (Again, see A/B test of the Firefly/Serenity rules and the “Is There a Right Way to Game?” posts.)

My response to this is — familiarity or proficiency with a system for a GM or players can make the game easier or more fun — but ultimately, the mechanics rarely make a game more fun…but they can dash it very quickly. A couple of case studies that will also play to point 2: 

Call of Chthulu is a fairly easy set of mechanics to learn, and I understood how they drove the game perfectly well. The guy running the game blew goats, so my opinion of the game has been badly tainted. I understand this preference was based on a single outlier and I have been open to trying it again…but there’s usually something I’d much rather play than a game where the point (seems to be) to see how you go mad and die. That’s not the game’s fault and Truman’s statement about GM skill is spot on here, but it also wasn’t aided by the fact I find Lovecraft-style horror unengaging — that that more taints the perception of the game and has nothing to do with familiarity of the system or the universe; a good GM could make me invest in the universe…but horror is hard to do.

Example 2: I ran Chameleon Eclectic’s version of the Babylon 5 universe for years. It has an easy base mechanic — a minus die and a plus die with the result (anywhere from a -5 to a +5) added to the skill. The combat system was a hot mess, except! I understood what it was modeling, so it made sense to me. It captured how a small injury could be instantly debilitating or not, and how a vicious injury could be leading to your very imminent demise, but not slow you down. Because I got it, I ran it well and the players quickly got a hold of the base mechanic and left the combat stuff to me to adjudicate. The rules set sucked, but because the “skill” of the GM was high, the game ran well and was, in Truman’s terms, a good game. That is wrong, however — the players and GM were good enough to rise above the limitations of a bad rules set.

Likewise, I ran Space: 1889 for years and was very familiar with it, but the limitations of the mechanics from a probability standpoint were glaringly, painfully obvious. We swapped to the Castle Falkenstein rules despite terrible combat rules (which we figured out were bad even before trying them out, but try we did.several times…) Was this due to a lack of expertise in running it? Perhaps, but they also did not model swashbuckling adventure well. We kit-bashed a version of the Lace & Steel combat rules (also a card-based game) that captured the fun of sword and fisticuffs play so well that, in one of those rare instances, they made play more fun. Players sometimes eschewed the ease gunplay for the fun of clashing blades. The new rules were not “familiar”, either, and evolved a bit over the course of play…but they accelerated the pace of fights and made it more competitive. So yes, the mechanics can aid play…but after 30 years of doing this, I can safely say it’s a rarity. Space: 1889 has a phenomenal setting that is so good game designers have started pasting it into other rules — Savage Worlds and Ubiquity. Castle Falkenstein’s steampunk meets fantasy was equally engaging but the core mechanics could not survive quirky side rules mechanics for sorcery and fighting. Again…great setting, crappy GAME.

At heart, I think the argument is between whether you think rules should help engage the players, or you players should engage with the rules. Newer indie games seem to be trying to find new ways to do the first — having the mechanics engage the players in some way by having them take part in the storytelling process. This, coupled with a recent trend of game designers wanting to view RPGs as “art” (James Franco agrees!) or “socially relevant”, leads to games more interested in the mechanics as art. They absolutely want the people playing the game to have fun, but their perception of what the fun part is, and how it is achieved might not quite jive with what their audience wants.

I would describe it this way: If you know how to tell a story, and the players are invested in theur characters and the setting, the mechanics can only hinder you. Rules light systems can capture that quite well, but in the end, good role playing and understanding the mechanics are mutually exclusive to having fun or good game rules. Familiarity can cause a better perception of the rules, but not all new games we play “suck” until we get better at them. Sometimes the mechanics enhance play, sometimes they simply disappear, and sometimes they curtail play. 

Sometimes, the game does just suck.