Tuesday, 29 December 2009

I am not an Adventurer by Choice but by Fate

I'll continue with the Duchy of Liverpool stuff tomorrow, but wanted to jot down some thoughts arising from comments by Kelvin Green here:

I think there's a tendency nowadays to think that being able to play any kind of character you like is an innate good, and anything less is self-evidently wrong. Such a viewpoint tends to ignore the very useful focus you get from "restricted" games like Pendragon; when you sit down at the table, you know what kind of thing you'll be playing. There's no humming and hawing, and party conflict becomes something more interesting than alignment clashes. All on the same page, as you say.

Regarding the lack of interest in a generic Pendragon, I've noticed that the game as a whole is rather overlooked. We're playing it in my current group, and only myself and the GM have any prior experience of the game. Some of the group had never heard of it before. For such a very good, and old, game, it isn't particularly well known. I'd imagine the lack of interest in a generic ruleset stems from the same anonymity. Bear in mind that the game itself is currently out of print, and that the most recent two editions/printings bounced around a number of publishers. It's just not considered a big name game, much as it should be.

To which I replied:

Perhaps the two things are not unrelated. Restricted focus makes for better gaming but doesn't win you many friends in "the marketplace of ideas" or whatever you want to call it.

I learned this in the D&D 3.5 era. A large majority of people really want the billions of class, feat and skill options offered by all the splatbooks, even though it's probably detrimental to actual play.

When I got back into D&D in my early 20s the group I joined were like this. They were obsessed with character generation and the many dozens of different options available at every step. (The DM in particular seemed to have an entire shelf of splatbooks that he would refer to when offering friendly advice to us players - all of them stuffed to the gills with new prestige classes and superduper feats. The flipside to this was the advice you would get not to take this or that feat at character generation. "Don't take toughness. It's useless." Sage nods from the others around the table.) It was great to have all those choices and it would be churlish to criticise something that offered them so much pleasure, but it sometimes felt as if the WotC people, in allowing this horrendous unbridled growth of options, had turned character generation into a monster. Arguments would break out over what was or wasn't the best starting feat for this or that race and class combination; newbies (like me) were left confused and disillusioned when told for the third time that they shouldn't have gone for this or that skill... and it all seemed to get in the way of playing the actual game.

I see the benefit of the Pendragon approach more and more, for the exact same reasons that Kelvin gives. And yet this advantage it offers is its Achilles Heel, because I'm sure that "restrictiveness" is something that most players (most people, actually) are intrinsically prejudiced against.


  1. Most games tend to give you loads of options from the start, so I think the hobby has been "trained" to see more character options as the ideal, even when it leads to D&D 3e and Rifts. I know that when I started running Legend of the Five Rings, I thought that it seemed restrictive to have everyone play samurai (and this is after I'd played Pendragon for years, so I'd obviously fallen into bad habits), but of course, an all-samurai party is part of the whole point of the game, it makes it what it is.

  2. How them to explain the success of games built around options like Mutants & Masterminds, Heo, Gurps, Tri-Stat and others? It's not options that slow things down, it's supplement madness that does it.

  3. I think there are good things about both approaches. Nothing quite beats a ruleset expressly created and honed toward a certain genre/theme.

    But since that sort of game doesn't exist for every permutation of genre or genre mashup, so the "generic" system has its place.

  4. But ...But Toughness was awesome.

    Options are good, optimization is bad. As is an excess of product.

  5. "...newbies (like me) were left confused and disillusioned when told for the third time that they shouldn't have gone for this or that skill..."

    Sounds like someone maxed out their ranks in Dungeoneering...

  6. Kelvingreen: It's one of those recieved wisdom things.

    JoeGKushner: I think GURPS and Tri-Stat are a different kettle of fish because they're generic - by definition they have to have options up to the eyeballs. Hero and M&M... well, I'm not sure if those games really are built around options - I think those games are an example of restricted focus, in that they are about playing superheroes and that's it.

    Trey: Yeah, generic games are something else (see response to Joe above).

    Rach: The problem is that it's difficult to separate options from optimisation. The two are linked.

    Blair: Exactly! That's what 3.5 needed. Two skills: Dungeoneering and Wilderness Exploration.

  7. In my (unusual) group, the sweet spot seems to be: enough options that people can feel a character is "theirs" few enough that it doesn't get confusing.

    Like the good little Old Schooler I am, the more I look at it, the more I feel like AD&D hit the sweet spot.

    Though Warhammer-style "randomly get assigned from among an infinity of options" works alright too.

  8. noisms, I have many an hour clocked in playing Star Hero or Fantasy Hero, so I think it's strange to see someone claim that Hero and M&M "are about playing superheroes and that's it".

    Honestly, I think Joe nailed it by saying "It's not options that slow things down, it's supplement madness that does it."

    I'd prefer games that provide options to customize your character in the core rulebook, and not to find out that the next supplement is a "must buy" because it has feat/merit/advantages that are way better.