Wednesday, 4 September 2013

On Charm; Or, the Perfection of Imperfection

A short while ago I wrote a rather complicated entry about the preference I have for different systems. I think I over complicated matters considerably; I actually think the main reason why I tend to like the games I like is to do just with a very simple but ill-defined quality: charm.

This thought occurred to me as I was planning a game I'd like to run eventually, as a kind of palate-cleanser once a particularly busy period of my life is over. It's a campaign set in a sort of fantasy, faeries-are-real medieval Northumberland focusing on the Border Reivers, incorporating some of the ideas I had regarding localismhex contentshex travel, and also Talysman's subhex crawl series.

The set-up seems perfect for Reign Enchiridion, a game I recently bought and have wanted to try. The idea is that the PCs are, of course, autonomous actors, but also part of the same extended border family, getting involved in managing resources, fighting competitors, raiding, currying favour with the nobility, expanding their territory and wealth, as well as adventuring. Reign, with its elegant company rules which merge seamlessly with those for individual PCs, its gritty feel, and its generic, customisable nature, seems perfect.

So why is it that the thought of actually running it using Reign just doesn't inspire me, but using Pendragon or a kind of customised form of BECMI D&D does - even though the latter would involve much more work?

I think it's because, ultimately, Reign doesn't charm me. Pendragon and Basic D&D, on the other hand, do. Why is this?

Partly, it's about passion. I have no doubt that all RPG designers are passionate about their system and also playing games, but this is communicated more effectively in some games than others. Greg Stafford, the designer of Pendragon, loves what he is trying to achieve. It seeps through the page. This is a man who really gets T. H. White, and Malory, and Gawain and the Green Knight, and all of that jazz, and he wants to make sure you get it too. And you do.

But this is only part of it: I also think we, as humans, tend to like things that are imperfect, and even to be slightly suspicious of things that are perfect. I'm sure that is not true for everybody, but it's not an unremarked-upon phenomena that a lot of the (supposedly) great masterpieces of Western art which everybody is familiar with - Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, whatever - are somewhat flawed. And I certainly think it is true when I consider the cultural products I really love: The Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek: TNG, and Bill Bryson's travel books, and Carlito's Way, and the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, and Raymond Carver's poetry, and War and Peace, and "The Rite of Spring", and Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the book Wonder Boys - these are a few of my favourite things, and yet none of them are really technically perfect. They are often messy and there are things in them that don't make sense or strike the wrong note or that I wonder why they are in there in the first place. There are parts of War and Peace where you just think to yourself, Leo, what are you on about? This book could have been half as long. Where was your editor? But when you're really into it you just feel glad to be alive and in the world and able to read it.

D&D and Pedragon are the same way. There is so much in both of them that makes you think, eh? That if you consider too deeply you realise make no sense whatsoever. That make you think, come on Mr Stafford, you really think it's okay to just say, "Magic is the GM saying that whatever happens, happens"? Or, come on Mr Gygax, you have this incredibly abstract combat system with 1-minute long rounds and yet you're telling me it's important to have different stats for awl pikes versus voulges versus guisarmes versus voulge-guisarmes?

And yet at the same times there is something indefinable there, some sort of spark, that makes you understand that for all their flaws - probably because of their flaws - these games feel as though they were written by people who understand what is really important in life. They feel as though they were written by people you'd want to have a pint with. They feel like they were written by people who know that it's more important that the game feels like being in a TH White novel than it be scrupulously fair, realistic and cohesive - or people who know that accidentally generating a pack of Wights on a wandering monster table on Dungeon Level 1 and seeing the players panic and flee for their lives is the thing that people are going to remember and enjoy about that session. Or that the fact you have to roll a different kind of dice for every piddling little subsystem is good because rolling different kinds of dice is fun. Or that having inexplicable result X come up is good because it means the GM has to come up with interesting explanation Y. And that is why I like them. These are games that feel as though they were carved by somebody out of wood. Not grown in a lab.


  1. Serendipity "the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way."

    That joy of hearing a favorite song on the radio, as opposed to selecting it. The great breakfast you have in a roadside diner, picked by chance, rather than the studiously OK one you could buy at the chain restaurant. The book shelf you knocked together yourself out of stolen lumber and scraps, rather than the one bought from Ikea.

  2. I think this is certainly the element that makes these products feel eminently *human*.
    From movies to music, and all other culture, I've always felt that the things that are technically flawless are sterile. Nothing natural works that way, and it tends to drain the feeling from a product.
    Lo-fi music may have breaks and some mistakes, but that is when you can feel what the artist felt: a mistake in a moment of frantic passion, a crack in a voice straining to reach just the right note. To lower that note, to make it work perfectly, is to reduce the art.
    And, as you say, it lacks a full understanding of what makes the game fun. I wholeheartedly agree.

  3. Spot on. Even as a teenage Palladium fanboy, I was aware of this phenomenon. I knew the Palladium system was terrible in a lot of ways, but I was drawn in and captivated by the personal writing style of the books. It was like I was sitting with Kevin Siembieda or Erick Wujcik, and they were excitedly, animatedly explaining their cool idea for a campaign. It didn't matter that the system they were using could barely hold itself together.

    I've been running Pendragon regularly for over 5 years now, and I still shake my head at how some of the mechanics work. (My favorite quirk of the system: you take a penalty to your skill, and then end up rolling a crit on the modified skill--without the penalty, you wouldn't have rolled a critical!) Yet it remains (and probably will remain) one of my top 3 systems of all time, and it's precisely because of the passion and the imperfection and the sheer humanity that jumps off every page. As much as I like good art and layout and editing in an RPG book, I feel like that's taken precedence over allowing passion and imperfection to come through the design process. (Much like contemporary American cinema, now I think about it.)

    It's not just about reading the books, either. I've found that the charming imperfections of a "human" game create a reverberating effect through the players--imperfect games just play better, I've found, probably because the GM and anyone else who has read the book pick up on that energy and take it with them to the table.

    Thanks for stating so eloquently a theory that's been knocking around in my head for a long time.

    1. I think another reason why they play better is that people aren't bothering about the rules. I also think that imperfect systems tend to work well intuitively if not rationally, which helps explain it too.

  4. At least for me a lot of what you're talking about stems from the move towards more unified systems that aren't really tied to much of anything specific in the game world.

    Reign's Company rules are a good example of this. They work fine and all but the exact same rules can run warfare between stellar empires, cut-throat competition between some corner mini-marts or (in your example) Border Reivers raiding each other.

    The game world details don't really matter, you just plug in the relative strengths of the organizations and go from there.

    But the problem with that is that if I'm playing a game of Border Reivers raiding each other, I really really really want the details of the game world to matter. Very very much so. I want those details to spell the difference between glorious victory and miserable failure. You don't get that with Reign's company rules since all of the interesting specific bits that make your setting your setting get stripped out and abstracted away so they're just "fluff."

    Works perfectly well for what it sets out to do, but stuff like voulge-guisarme-specific rules send a signal to me that all of the little details of the world actually make a difference, they're not just "fluff" that can be ignored or changed at will.

    1. Yeah - that's one of the reasons why I find generic games quite soulless and difficult to get into.

  5. I guess it all boils down to whether you perceive a game as charming, even with all its minor imperfections or flawed, too inconsistent or problematic to make work without a huge degree of work on your part.

    Certainly Champions is the former for me. As a lover of rules light games, charm is the only explanation of why I like HERO system so much. ;)

    Unfortunately, D&D falls into the latter category for this particular GM. If you have to house rule more than half of a games mechanics to play it (as most of the people I know who have run the game have done), than that game loses its charm for me. I would rather find a system whose charm AND existing mechanics both work for myself and my group.

  6. And that is why I keep hoping they'll sell a new edition of D&D as clip art. You go through, weed out all the rules you don't wish to use in a campaign and then distribute Pdfs. I only started liking the second edition when I realized it wasn't about using all the options. Why not make a game which plays ala carte?