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 localism, hex contents, hex 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.